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Emergency remote teaching vs. online learning

Written By: Gemma Goldenberg
5 min read


This research summary discusses a recently published article comparing emergency remote teaching and online learning (Hodges et al., 2020). Millions of students around the world have been learning remotely since schools and FE providers closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers have been praised for their adaptivity and speed in getting to grips with new ways of distance teaching and providing access to learning for their students. However, this increasingly looks like it could be a longer term situation than first thought – particularly for colleges and universities. It is therefore imperative that educators reflect on the difference between emergency remote teaching (ERT) and carefully planned online learning and consider if, when and how they might transition from the former to the latter.

What is online learning vs ERT?

Hodges at al. (2020) assert that researchers and teachers alike need to recognise the difference between carefully planned and resourced online learning and ERT, which has been rapidly constructed with minimal time and resources, as a temporary measure.

Effective online education involves a detailed design process to maximise the quality of instruction. This process involves choosing between multiple options for a series of variables. A full set of 9 variables and their options can be found in the book Learning Online: What Research Tells Us about Whether, When and How (Means et al., 2014) but a small section is summarised below:


Variable Options
Modality Fully online, blended (over 50 per cent online), blended (25-25 per cent online)
Pacing Self-paced, class-paced, mixture of both
Pedagogy Expository




Student role online Listen or read

Complete problems/answer questions

Explore simulation and resources

Collaborate with peers


Research has shown that some of these options are more effective than others and sometimes this depends on the target audience of the course. For example, younger learners benefit from synchronous sessions (where the teacher and learner are interacting ‘live’ at the same time) whereas adult learners require more flexibility so asynchronous courses work best for them. Meaningfully integrated interactions between students and content, students and peers and students and teachers have all been found to increase learning outcomes, so carefully planned online courses should seek to maximise these interactions.

The authors also assert that lectures are just one part of the university experience for students. Therefore, well-established online university courses (which can take six to nine months to develop and often go through several iterations before being well-honed) aim to go beyond replacing face-to-face lectures and seek to also create learning communities and provide various social and informal student supports.

In contrast, the situation experienced by many teachers and learners during the coronavirus pandemic is meaningfully different. The table below summarises the distinctions made between online learning and ERT.


Online learning Emergency remote teaching (ERT)
A course which has deliberately been planned to take part wholly or fully online A temporary shift of instructional delivery to an alternate mode during a crisis
Often involve face-to-face, blended or hybrid elements to the course Usually takes place entirely remotely
Aims to create a robust educational ecosystem Aims to provide temporary access and instruction
Can take time to design and set up, and can be tweaked and reiterated over time Needs to be quick to set up and reliably available during a crisis
Is assisted by faculty support teams who may help teachers and lecturers with:

  • design support
  • technical assistance
  • professional development opportunities
  • developing content
  • multimedia creation
Often takes place in the absence of wider support
Can take months to develop a new course. A temporary solution to an immediate problem – often mapping to rapidly changing learner/community needs and limitations in resources.


How can online learning and ERT be evaluated?

Much previous research has attempted to measure the effectiveness of online learning by comparing online versions of a course with face-to-face learning (a media comparison study). Hodges et al. (2020) assert that these studies are ineffective, as they have too many confounding variables and do not adequately consider individual differences such as learner needs and the differing ways that individuals interact with different media. They also give little thought to psychological learning theories and the individual characteristics of courses.

How, then, might institutions best judge whether online learning has been successful? The authors suggest first defining what ‘success’ is and the different ways in which it can be measured, including:

  • learning outcomes e.g. achieving the intended skills and knowledge
  • attitudinal outcomes e.g. interest, motivation and engagement
  • programmatic outcomes e.g. course completion rates, faculty time investments
  • resources and implementation e.g. reliability of technology used, access to systems, quality assurance.


Each of these factors can affect the success of online learning and inform the planning of future online courses. However, different methods will be required to evaluate ERT. The authors suggest that evaluations in these circumstances should be more focused on context, input and process rather than end products (See Stufflebeam and Zhang (2017) for a full list and description of evaluation terms).

Institutions will therefore want to ask themselves questions such as:

  • When shifting to remote instruction, what resources did we need to support this transition? Which aspects of the context (institutional, social, governmental) affected the effectiveness of this transition?
  • Did we have sufficient technological infrastructure to handle emergency remote teaching?
  • Where did staff and students struggle the most? How can we adapt our processes to respond better in future?


Hodges et al. (2020) recognise the importance of evaluating ERT and using these reflections to inform future planning. This is unlikely to be the last time that ERT needs to be used and highlighting strengths and weaknesses can help better prepare institutions for future emergency situations. However, the authors caution against equating ERT with online learning during this process. Using data captured during this pandemic to compare the effectiveness of online and face-to-face learning could result in misleading conclusions which do not reflect how effective online learning can be when it has been carefully constructed outside of a crisis situation.

Key questions for you and colleagues:

  • How can institutions with experience in developing online learning effectively support those who are new to this?
  • How will the ERT you have provided be evaluated and how can this information be useful in planning future learning opportunities?
  • Are there any courses, classes or curricula for which you may want to keep an online learning option permanently available? If so, how will these permanent fixtures differ from ERT?

Further reading

This online journal with hundreds of articles, all on the theme of online teaching and learning.

This article explains what the research does, and does not, tell us about online learning.


Share your experiences with educators globally by joining the discussion below. How will the emergency remote teaching provided during COVID-19 be evaluated in your context?
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