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Does Online Instruction Really Work?

February 9th, 2021

When most schools closed in March 2020, teachers worked hard to provide some type of instruction for K-12 students. But the urgency of the situation left little to no time to review available research about the most effective remote learning practices, including online instruction. Most teachers have since learned that online instruction is very different and requires new approaches to planning and delivery. 

Although most of the prior research has been conducted with college students, the findings provide a good starting point for teachers seeking to apply the most effective online instruction until more K-12 findings are available.

What the Data Tells Us about Effective Online Instruction 

Providing remote instruction for students became a necessity due to COVID-19 and many teachers did not have time to prepare. Nonetheless, remote education dates to the 19th century when “correspondence” courses were introduced for students in remote locations (Sun & Chen, 2016). 

When radio, and then television, were introduced various types of remote learning that used these media followed as well. Computers are often associated with remote-based instruction today, although there are other types of remote courses also available. Sun and Chen (2016) found that the expansion of online remote courses at the university level began at the turn of the 21st century and then expanded rapidly as a result of funding cuts during the 2008 recession. While online instruction has become very common at the college level, it was not as widely used for elementary, middle, and high school grades until COVID. 

Borup and Evmenova (2019) noted that both external and internal factors influence online teaching practices. External factors include hardware and internet access. Internal factors include instructors’ attitudes, beliefs, and prior experiences with technology. 

Other research has focused more on the actual practices that instructors use before, during, and after online sessions that influence student learning. The research identifies five main categories for best practices: 

  • Course design and development
  • Presence
  • Engagement
  • Feedback
  • Professional learning

These practices are consistent with Mayer (2018) who noted that effective online instruction results from instructor practices and not the media or hardware used for the lessons (Mayer, 2018).

Course Design

Many researchers have pointed out the importance of careful course design and thorough development. As most teachers have discovered in recent months, online course development and delivery takes more time and effort than classroom-based teaching (Sun & Chen, 2016). Research findings from both cognitive psychology and online instruction show that one of the biggest factors in student learning is cognitive load (Mayer, 2018). Specifically, if the course design and content is too dense and difficult to navigate, students will exhaust their cognitive efforts on finding the right part of the website and not have energy left for learning the actual content. 

Since the instructor will not be in the room with the students during online instruction, very thorough planning of all course materials and practices is paramount. Most online courses are offered using a learning management system (LMS) and it is important that the instructor knows how to use the LMS very well so that guidance for students can be provided. In addition, instructor mastery of the LMS makes it possible to load content and create online activities that are intuitive and easy for students to navigate. Well-designed courses take more time to develop but benefit students through enjoyable and enriching learning experiences. During the COVID school disruptions K-12 teachers have reported that finding time for preparation has been difficult (Pryor et al., 2020) and ongoing online instruction needs to take into account the extra preparation time.


The active presence of both the instructor and students has been widely recognized as an important component of effective online learning (Sun and Chen, 2016). The term presence generally refers to being present and available for all course activities and is important in both synchronous and asynchronous courses. Presence also includes relationships between the teacher and students and among the students.

For example, a study of online practices used by university instructors awarded for their optimal online instruction found that rapport was the single most important component of effective online instruction (Ryan et al., 2015). Relationships are widely recognized as an important component of classroom-based instruction and it appears that this is true for online learning as well. Sun and Chen (2016) noted that the relationships made in online courses lead to a distinct online community that plays an important role in learning outcomes. At a time when many students might experience anxiety due to the pandemic, it appears that teacher efforts to be present online and offer an online community can help make up for the lack of social interactions that would otherwise occur at school.


Another feature of effective online instruction is learner engagement. This refers to the frequency that the students apply learned knowledge or skills. As online instruction has evolved over time, engagement practices have changed (Mayer, 2018). Early online courses limited interactions and engagement to typed discussions. Innovations in technology now allow both audio and video participation as a routine component. At all levels, synchronous online learning using tools like Zoom and Google Meet have become ubiquitous. Nonetheless, just as in classroom settings, actual student engagement in learning can vary in a videoconference session. Increasing attention to how teachers can foster active student engagement during audio and video sessions is a likely outcome of the COVID-19 era. Notably, Borup and Evmenova (2019) found that university faculty enrolled in a course designed to teach them how to teach online reported that one of the most important course components was the opportunity to see skills modeled and then practicing them right away. Similarly, exemplary Georgia online instructors reported that student engagement was a key to learning outcomes. Recent reports across content areas have inquired about student engagement during online lessons (Chamberlain et al., 2020; Kamenetz, 2020) and more research about K-12 student engagement online is expected during the post-COVID era (Barnett, 2020). 


Another practice that cuts across many research findings is the importance of timely feedback to students. Instructor feedback to students about their work is critical to learning because it provides a feedback loop by which students can know if their efforts meet the goal or if additional learning is needed (Mayer, 2018). Like course development, student feedback takes time. 

With the development of enhanced online teaching tools, it is now possible for instructors to use text, voice, and video feedback when responding to student submissions. The exemplary university online instructors mentioned above identified timely student feedback as one of the five most important online teaching practices (Ryan et al., 2015). Feedback to students is another type of communication and it plays a role in helping students to remain engaged with the course, thus serving a dual role. 

Professional Learning

A number of researchers indicated the need for more professional learning opportunities for online instructors (Berry, 2020). The COVID-19 disruptions did not allow time for such activities, but it appears that online teaching is likely to be a part of K-12 education into the future and more opportunities for teachers to learn how to teach online are needed. Of note, Pryor et al.’s findings indicated that although most of the teachers in the study were resistant to online teaching before the study, they were empowered and eager after participating in professional learning to teach online. For now, online instruction as well as hybrid solutions that include online and on-campus components, are the norm for many students. As schools continue to address digital access and educators refine the delivery of online solutions, it is important that we understand how student learning has been impacted. 

Effective online instruction is possible and teachers will need support to make it happen. Although far more research is needed as to the best online instruction for K-12 students, college-level findings combined with prior research documenting effective instruction in classrooms is available and helpful for administrators and teachers who will plan and deliver online instruction.



Sun, A., & Chen, X. (2016). Online education and its effective practice: A research review. Journal of Information Technology Education, 15(2016), 157-190. doi:10.28945/3502

Borup, J., & Evmenova, A. S. (2019). The Effectiveness of Professional Development in Overcoming Obstacles to Effective Online Instruction in a College of Education. Online Learning, 23(2), 1-20.

Mayer, R. E. (2018). Educational psychology’s past and future contributions to the science of learning, science of instruction, and science of assessment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(2), 174.

Ryan, M., Jonick, C., & Langub, L. W. (2015). Expert reflections on effective online instruction: Importance of course content. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 18(4)

Chamberlain, L., Lacina, J., Bintz, W. P., Jimerson, J. B., Payne, K., & Zingale, R. Literacy in lockdown: Learning and teaching during COVID-19 school closures. The Reading Teacher Vol. 74 No. 3 pp. 243–253

Kamenetz, A. (2020). 4 in 10 US Teens Say They Haven’t Done Online Learning since Schools Closed. NPR, April, 8.

Berry, B. (2020, April 13). Teaching, learning, and caring in the post-COVID era.


Pryor, J., Wilson, R., Chapman, M., & Bates, F. (2020).  Elementary Educators’ Experiences Teaching during COVID-19 School Closures: Understanding Resources in Impromptu Distance Education. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 23(4)




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