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Research project

E-learning Engagement Gap During School Closures: Differences by Academic Performance

Closing schools has been one of the primary measures of governments worldwide to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. As a result, teachers and students were forced into an unprecedented, sudden transition from face-to-face to online teaching. The latter has persisted in countries hard-hit by subsequent waves of the virus.

This project investigates the effects of ramping up e-learning in Italy during the early stages of the pandemic. As students with better grades should get higher income returns in the future, we want to test whether the sudden change in learning methods might contribute to increased social mobility or, instead, further widen the socio-economic inequalities.

In a working paper we analyse two natural experiments in Italy: the national closure of schools, where all students were forced to use only e-learning, and intermittent school closures, where students combined in-person classes with e-learning. The paper studies the differential response to these two events in online learning engagement across Italian regions with different pre-pandemic levels of academic performance.

We document three main findings:

  1. Using PISA and INVALSI administrative data, we show that regions with a higher average academic performance did not have a higher engagement in online learning in pre-COVID-19 times.
  2. Combining Google Trends with INVALSI data, we find that regions with lower academic performance increased their search for online learning resources more during the time in which schools were fully closed nationwide than their counterparts, higher-achieving regions.
  3. Analysing the intermittent school closures plan of the 2020-2021 academic year, we document that previous academic performance was no longer a relevant factor determining changes in e-learning platform usage in the new academic year.

The results of this analysis can help inform future policy responses in education. If the performance gaps widen as a result of the pandemic, the evidence we present in this paper calls for a greater involvement of the Italian Government – in line with interventions evaluated by Carlana & La Ferarra (2021) and Angrist et al (2020) – than merely providing families with access to these platforms in periods when schools are forced to close. If it is the case that the pandemic increases educational inequalities in Italy, our paper is consistent with a subtler explanation: for example, lower-achieving regions are making a less efficient use of online resources, where more searches for online learning resources do not translate into better grades. To answer this question, would require specific surveys, and it therefore falls outside the scope of this paper. 

The working paper with the research results can be accessed here.

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