Focusing on the four R’s—rigor, routines, relationships, and resources—can help address many crucial challenges as schools continue with online learning.

Online schools provide insights into what makes for effective transitions to remote learning. Surveys conducted by Cognia™ in spring of 2020 reveal the academic, personal, and emotional challenges that students, teachers and parents face in the dramatic shift to remote learning that is likely to continue throughout this school year.

The surveys reveal that the shift to online learning necessitated by the coronavirus and COVID-19 has resulted in more “busy work” with less rigor  and has led parents and students to worry about being unprepared for the next grade and beyond. The shift online increased the work of teachers, including rethinking instructional design, reinventing how to use their time, and addressing the social and emotional needs of students and families. Online learning has exacerbated long-standing inequities: students with the fewest resources are falling further behind.

Among the biggest lessons Cognia has learned from studying digital learning schools is that getting the right processes and support in place and providing access to technology are essential.

Digital learning schools—and Cognia’s approach to assuring quality—provide useful lessons for teachers and school leaders seeking to increase rigor, expand collaboration, and maximize the benefits of digital learning environments. Digital learning schools range from “brick-and-mortar” institutions that are heavily focused on technology-mediated instruction, “brick-and-click” providers that blend face-to-face learning in a classroom environment with online delivery, and virtual schools that are 100 percent online.

We can trace the origins of remote learning to the middle of the last century when television connected missionary families and students from rural communities to far-off schools. In the 2017-18 school year, more than 430,000 students were enrolled across 501 full-time virtual schools or in 300 blended learning schools,[i] according to the Boulder, CO-based National Education Policy Center. Students primarily enroll because their parents want more flexibility in their children’s learning, so that they can learn in any place, at any time, and at any pace. Virtual schools also are often seen as an environment where students get lots of individual attention, find a safe haven from being bullied by other students, or establish strong connections between students and teachers.

Cognia currently accredits more than 500 of these schools nationwide. Our work in establishing standards, conducting reviews of hundreds of schools each year, and monitoring effective performance can provide insight into best practices for digital learning environments for all schools, as well as effective transition to blended or remote learning today.

Making the transition

Among the biggest lessons Cognia has learned from studying digital learning schools is that getting the right processes and support in place and providing access to technology are essential. Education providers need to take great care in mapping out how students, parents, teachers, and staff will be onboarded into the digital learning environment: considering training, support, and tools (including a user’s guide to using a digital learning platform). Equally important is providing professional development for teachers focused on curriculum and instruction, and giving everyone a direct point of contact to turn to for help. (See critical steps in making the pivot to online learning.)

Ongoing professional development and opportunities for collaboration help teachers model instructional strategies aligned with effective online learning, set expectations for students, develop schedules that maximize teacher-student interaction and advising, and encourage student collaboration.

To address the challenges that schools are facing and make the most of the digital environment, schools need to pay more attention to “four Rs”: rigor, routines, relationships, and resources.

Focusing on the 4 Rs

To address the challenges that schools are facing and make the most of the digital environment, schools need to pay more attention to “four Rs”: rigor, routines, relationships, and resources.

Rigor. Some parents, community members, and educators perceive virtual schools as less rigorous than other schools. But digital learning schools can emphasize personalized learning, independent study, and group work that works like jet fuel for student motivation and engagement. To introduce online strategies, teachers need to internalize alternative practices and schedules that are different from those in face-to-face learning environments. In a physical classroom, the teacher can move students around easily, group and regroup students in response to observable needs and behaviors, monitor students’ engagement, and redirect off-task behavior. By contrast, students in online environments are often in distracting environments and are rarely underfoot, as neither teachers nor students are going to spend eight hours a day on Zoom.

For that reason, teachers need help to align their instruction to online learning and answer numerous urgent questions, such as: “How do I ensure that lab work and hands-on learning will work in the home context when students may not have supplies?” “How can I create a new classroom schedule to build a sense of connection with students and encourage the right dose of independent learning, hands-on activities, and personalized attention?” “How can I ‘be with’ students more without actually being with them?”

Effective professional collaboration can help teachers “own” online teaching strategies that may initially be alien to them. Such strategies can help set expectations for students in everything from communications, benchmarks for success, and grading/feedback to response time, virtual office hours/attendance, and engagement. Ultimately, teachers can help themselves and their students expand their comfort level with digital learning resources. Adapting instructional strategies and differentiating instruction to the level of focus provided in a face-to-face classrooms can help teachers reduce quantity and increase quality of assignments. Those approaches also help meet the needs of the 40 percent of students who reported on the Cognia survey that assignments were new and difficult to complete.

Routines. While school routines may sound like ritualized activities that take time away from student engagement and inquiry, this is not the case. Routines put students in motion towards self-directed and group learning, set expectations, help students focus, and create the structure for rigorous online instruction. Institution leaders need to be sure that routines are used with consistency within classrooms, within grade levels, and from one peer teacher to another. And schools need to pay special attention to routines for elementary and middle school, at ages when students need more direct learning support than do high school students who are becoming independent, self-directed, and self-reliant.

Relationships. Though many parents and educators believe that online learning inherently decreases student engagement and connection with others, Schools can further cultivate an effective remote learning environment by:

  • Engaging both students and parents in the learning process
  • Supporting teacher-to-teacher interaction
  • Fostering the social-emotional well-being of students, parents, and teachers

Resources. Schools have an obligation to ensure that all students have access to needed technology to make digital learning possible. We anticipate that school resources will become increasingly tight as a result of both state budget shortfalls caused by the recession, and significant new costs to ensure student safety. Schools will need adequate resources to be fully staffed with teachers who are trained to make effective use of technology, teaching and learning resources, and assessment tools.

The keys to effective learning environments

When Cognia accredits digital learning schools, review teams explore the quality of the digital environment using the “digital dozen,” twelve guiding questions that assure that schools are equitable and engaging, operate effectively in blended and/or digital environments, have academic integrity and clear accountability for the quality of student work, and use data and evidence extensively to continuously improve (see box for more details on the accreditation process).

Our work is informed by a body of research about how students learn best, applied to hybrid and online settings. Research by Joan Hughes in the early 1990s identified a three-part taxonomy that shows how technology can be integrated in schools[ii]. At its most basic level, technology can simply replace, but not improve, the mode of instruction, as when teachers use an online textbook or post a lecture video. Technology can amplify learning, allowing teachers to use technology to enhance tasks and improve efficiency and effectiveness, as when they use adaptive testing to pinpoint strands of knowledge students have not mastered and identify specific content, tools, and types of learning materials to help students master these competencies. Ultimately, technology can transform learning, reinventing what, how, and where students learn and how they are motivated. For example, virtual reality (simulated experience), avatars (virtual guides), and big data (adaptive learning platforms drawing from information about student habits, attitudes, interests, goals and learning styles), can transform what students study, how they engage with content and own what they learn, make learning relevant, and motivate themselves and take charge of their own learning.

The effectiveness of learning environments is also influenced by research on student engagement and motivation, student accountability, group learning, and the effect of everything from positive relationships with teachers, response to intervention, peer influence and organization of student cohorts, and alternative (online) scheduling.

As many schools continue their pivot to online or hybrid learning this fall, educators are recognizing that many components of their digital learning environments will remain part of what some are calling the “next normal” long after the pandemic subsides. The experiences of digital learning schools and the yardsticks that measure their quality can provide a roadmap to help all schools become more agile and effective in this new era of teaching and learning.

How Cognia accredits digital learning schools

Cognia Accreditation is a seal of quality that indicates that institutions have gone through an intentional third-party review process to determine if they exhibit the best qualities of learning and use research-based best practices. Cognia Accreditation for digital learning schools assures U.S. colleges that these high schools are of high quality and that students who graduate are ready for college and work.

Cognia evaluates online learning from the end user’s perspective, examining the student experience and engagement. While many digital learning schools say that they encourage student collaboration and project-based learning to increase student engagement, Cognia can determine the extent to which this really happens by focusing on several key areas:

  • Instructional design
  • Student engagement
  • Learning community, including interaction with others and with technology to perform significant learning tasks and content direction
  • Technology infrastructure
  • Assessment of learning

The accreditation process for digital schools is similar to Cognia Accreditation for traditional schools. Schools conduct a self-assessment and expert review teams conduct site visits to gather evidence that schools meet performance standards (see suggested reading) that address:

  • Leadership capacity—the ability of governance and leadership to meet institutional objectives and involve stakeholders, and the capacity to implement strategies that improve learner and educator performance
  • Learning capacity—how well a learning culture creates positive and productive teacher/learner relationships, high expectations, a challenging/engaging curriculum, quality instruction, comprehensive student support; and how well it monitors/measures learner progress and achievement
  • Resource capacity—the institution’s use and equitable distribution of resources to support the institution’s mission and professional learning for all staff, and to ensure funding, sustainability, organizational effectiveness, and increased student learning

Each team drafts a comprehensive report that the Cognia Global Commission takes into account in making accreditation decisions. The accreditation review reports also are used by schools to develop action plans for continuous improvement. Schools that earn Cognia Accreditation meet continuous improvement standards and submit to a review every five years.


To read more about the results of Cognia surveys on the impacts of remote learning, see the article “Coping with COVID: The Academic, Personal, and Emotional Impact of the Shift to Remote Schooling.

Resources for educators 
Cognia has developed and made available new webinars, resources, and other materials that can help schools transition to digital learning. These resources address a broad range of topics, including best practices and lessons from digital learning schools, building community and positive relationships online, and addressing equity in digital learning.


[i] Tate, Emily, Despite Poor Performance, Virtual School Enrollment Continues to Grow, May 28, 2019.

[ii] Edupedia,WHAT IS THE RAT MODEL?, June 10, 2018.


Private: Mark A. Elgart, Ed.D.
Dr. Mark A. Elgart has served as president and CEO of Cognia since 2002. Under his leadership Cognia was established, following the merger of AdvancED and Measured Progress, to bridge the gap between school evaluation and student assessment.  Cognia serves as the trusted partner with over 36,000 institutions in 85 countries to advance learning for 25 million students.  Elgart has a long, distinguished career of 40 years as an educational leader including time as a math and physics teacher, school principal, and chief executive leading a global, education non-profit.  He is annually recognized, both locally and internationally, as an influential leader in education due to his impact on education policy and the work of schools.  He is an internationally recognized speaker on education and frequent author on educational issues including recent whitepapers on federal policy and school improvement.  In education, Elgart is widely viewed as the foremost authority on school improvement and education quality.  Elgart earned a bachelor’s  in Mathematics from Springfield College, a master’s in Educational Administration from Westfield State College, and Doctorate in Education in Leadership in Schooling from the University of Massachusetts.
Dang Phan
Dang Phan is senior director of digital learning services for Cognia (formerly AdvancED and Measured Progress).  Over the past nineteen years, he has had numerous experiences working as an educational provider within the public school system, including high school and higher education, and the private sector.  He has served as a classroom teacher, department chair, administrator, adjunct faculty, senior instructional specialist, senior program coordinator, curriculum manager, and director of curriculum development support services.   Mr. Phan is a graduate of Arizona State University and Grand Canyon University and has an undergraduate degree in mathematics education and a graduate degree in education administration.