Virtual Instruction by the Numbers: K-12 Stats

Written by April Willis

December 4, 2020

Virtual instruction prior to COVID-19 was increasing in popularity, especially among the higher education community. The P-12 world was also seeing a steady increase in virtual offerings, but nobody could have predicted the sudden surge in virtual learning as a result of the global pandemic.

Global Transition to Virtual Instruction

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 93% of American households with school-aged children engaged in some degree with virtual learning. Globally, over 1.2 billion students from 186 different countries were no longer able to attend their brick-and-mortar schools, as noted by the World Education Forum.  At a time when almost every school worldwide closed the doors to their physical buildings, they opened the doors to a brand new method of instruction- virtual instruction. 

However, one of the most prominent concerns in our almost instantaneous pivot to virtual instruction was access. Would all students have equal access to high-quality virtual instruction?

Access to Virtual Instruction

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates that the wealthier a family was, the easier the transition to virtual instruction was. Schools that were no longer able to serve students in-person, often offered two outlets for instruction: 1. Virtual Instruction via online classrooms, synchronous and asynchronous lessons, digital assignments, etc. 2. Paper materials that were sent home for students to complete on their own. 80% of families with children engaged in distance learning utilized the first option (virtual instruction), while 20% utilized the second option (paper materials).

When looking at income levels, a clear trend was obvious- the higher the income, the likelier they were to solely utilize virtual instruction materials.

The chart shows that 66% of families who earn less than $50K per year are using virtual instruction materials, while 77% of families who earn between $50K and $99K per year use virtual instruction materials, and finally, 86% of families earning over $100K per year will use virtual instruction materials.

Effectiveness of Virtual Instruction

Access is clearly an issue in the virtual instruction world, but what about effectiveness? Can virtual instruction be as effective as in-person teaching? Well, it’s complicated. 

The World Education Forum discovered that virtual instruction effectiveness varies among age groups and needs. As expected, younger children tend to perform better in physical classroom settings because they require a more structured environment with limited distractions.  That doesn’t mean they will not be successful in a virtual classroom, it just means teaching them virtually requires a little more planning to address their needs. 

On the positive side, research shows that students retain 25%-60% more material in an online setting as opposed to only 8%-10% in a physical classroom setting. Experts believe this is due to students being able to learn faster and/or go at their own pace. In fact, research has also shown that virtual learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than traditional instruction methods.

All in all, virtual learning definitely salvaged what was left of the 2019-2020 school year and has also created new possibilities for the future of education. When educators and families were forced into the virtual learning situation, they made quick decisions, revised as needed, and did their best to ensure every student was served appropriately.

There’s still work to be done, but now that we are better equipped with data, we are in a better place to make high-stakes decisions and set virtual instruction standards.

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