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Over the past decade, advances in education technology (EdTech) have enabled an increase in distance learning practices. In 2019 the Department for Education’s EdTech strategy set out plans to embed EdTech to reduce teacher workload, increase efficiency, improve accessibility and inclusion, support excellent teaching, and improve educational outcomes in schools, colleges, and higher education.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of distance learning was increasing in higher education but uncommon in schools. The widespread closure of educational institutions because of the pandemic led to a rapid transition to fully remote distance learning for most learners. This has increased interest in how effective distance learning is and what is good practice.

Key points:

  • Comparing the effectiveness of distance learning to traditional methods of in-person learning is challenging and most available evidence comes from higher education settings.
  • Evidence suggests that distance learning can be as, or more, effective than in-person instruction at achieving learning outcomes for students in some subjects and contexts.
  • In higher education, the ‘quality’ of learning design and teaching, including adequate feedback and clear communication, may be more important than the mode of delivery for supporting learning outcomes.
  • There are limited data on outcomes in schools and colleges. However, case studies suggest that fully remote learning requires a degree of autonomy that is best suited to motivated, older students.
  • Learner engagement and motivation are key to effective distance learning. In schools and colleges, engaging all learners in distance learning is challenging. It requires parental support, integrated student-teacher and peer-to-peer communication, and access to hardware and study spaces.
  • Well-designed, technology-enhanced assessment can be used both to monitor and evaluate student learning. However, the evidence base for what works best for integrating assessment into distance learning in different contexts is limited, particularly for formal exams and for assessment of vocational courses.
  • Distance learning and EdTech could improve accessibility and inclusion in education, providing that learning design is inclusive and accessible and barriers, such as the digital divide, are addressed.
  • Teachers across education sectors cite a lack of confidence and time to master new digital technologies and distance learning approaches as key barriers to their use. For distance learning to be effective, teachers need adequate support and training in EdTech use and how to design distance learning effectively.
  • Many stakeholders consider that the pandemic has shown the potential of distance learning and EdTech to support effective learning. Some forms of distance learning, such as blended learning, are likely to be used more widely in education at all levels following the pandemic.


POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer-reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Professor Martin Weller, The Open University*

Professor Alan Tait, The Open University*

Professor Anne Adams, The Open University*

Professor Thomas Crick, University of Swansea*

Professor Richard Watermeyer, University of Bristol*

Professor Alison Kington, University of Worcester*

Professor Cathy Lewin, Manchester Metropolitan University*

Dr Tom Perry, University of Birmingham*

Dr Mark Newman, University College London

Jonathan Kay, Education Endowment Foundation*

Ruth Maisey, Josh Hillman, Steve Grundy, The Nuffield Foundation*

Hannah Owen, Nesta*

Caroline Wright, British Educational Suppliers Association*

Maria Cunningham, Teacher Development Trust (TDT)

Penelope Griffin, The Bridge Group

Ruby Nightingale, Laura Bruce, The Sutton Trust

Department for Education*

* denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.

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