“Distance learning” is one of those education euphemisms meant to put a scientific sheen on a fairly basic concept. We could instead refer simply to “online classes,” a more descriptive phrase, even if it has less cachet. All one hears in the education world is how this online learning experience during the coronavirus pandemic is going to revolutionize education, so I thought it would be only fair to add something a bit less sanguine to the public record.
It’s worth reflecting on this dichotomy between the experience of completing a class from your laptop at home and physically showing up to a classroom. I’ve experienced both as a high school English teacher and as a student in college and graduate school, now working on my second master’s degree in education, admittedly one of the less rigorous disciplines.
Research confirms what I have suspected: Students learn less in online classes. Even students in so-called face-to-face classes do worse with heavy technology use. A study that analyzed fourth-grade students who frequently used tablets in class as compared to their peers who did not found that the students who used tablets performed significantly worse on international exam scores, demonstrating that technology use is associated with worse academic outcomes. Such students are also missing out on the human experience.
While perhaps too much is made of “social emotional learning” these days, there is in school a lesson for students in social interaction. Some adolescents are introverted, some outgoing, but all are asserting their identities, trying to find their “voice,” whether through writing and participating in their classes, or even socializing with their peers. The more they have their faces buried in their smartphone or iPad, the less this process of individuation occurs.
Technology Can’t Replace Teachers
Now schools across the country have transitioned to online classes in many cases. It makes me reflect upon why I became a teacher in the first place. I wanted to do something human, something tangible and time-honored.
Ironic, then, that when I actually got into the profession, I learned that a teacher’s effectiveness was perceived largely based on how much he incorporated technology into his lessons. This was not what I had in mind. Indeed, nothing makes me happier than to see students flipping through a physical book — even, God forbid, a textbook — regardless of whether they do so reluctantly with groans and sighs.
We should not judge the effectiveness of education based on students’ interest, because they are constitutionally undisposed to appreciate what we have to offer. Technology is to be the elixir to solve all this; hence students bury their faces in Chromebooks class after class. This is considered a good thing, without any qualifications. That look of frustration and boredom which traditional schoolwork can elicit is turned into that vacuous stare one gets when engaging with a computer screen. They are anesthetized, and we find this convenient.
Progressive education, by definition opposed to traditional education, favors so-called distance learning and heavy technology use in the classroom. We are using technologies that were previously unavailable. This is all part of the bias that everything new must be good, that all change is for the better.
Furthermore, ed-tech is favored because when students are on computers, the teacher tends to become peripheral. Progressive education disfavors the idea that the teacher should actually lead the class with “direct instruction” — formerly referred to as “teaching.”
Students Connect in the Classroom
But during this coronavirus shutdown, let’s consider what is lost without the face-to-face interaction of a classroom. Class discussion. The spontaneity. The lively discussions and debates that can happen only in class in real time. It’s true that students often display apathy in class. Often students don’t want to discuss, let alone debate, anything because they don’t have any passion or interest.
This is a problem. An English department head for the school where I did my student-teaching warned me, “Don’t assume yourself.” By this he meant that teachers sometimes project their own level of maturity and intellectual curiosity onto their students, a grave error they will be quickly disabused of.
But by adjusting their expectations and practices, teachers can move beyond student apathy and still make those essential human connections. At the risk of romanticizing the experience of teaching and learning in public schools, there is indeed lively discussion or at least interest among some students. Even in a relatively apathetic class, there are moments of levity and intellectual engagement. Why should we ever want to dispense with that and replace it with technology, and even worse, at a distance?
Many will say we’re not replacing teachers with computers, we’re supplementing. “It’s just a tool.” I’m afraid we’re well beyond that point, because a tool is not used nonstop. You put a tool down once in a while.
Here I’ll give the usual tiresome caveats that I am not anti-technology. I do indeed use technology as part of my class. But it is still worth taking a critical look at the junction between education and technology.
Public school these days is not “Dead Poets Society” — certainly not any school where I have worked. Yet it is far from evident that throwing students onto Chromebooks, or now delivering lessons via Google Classroom to students’ homes, is a step in the right direction either.
Indeed, we must make the best of it when students have no choice but to do their schoolwork from home due to an alarming virus. But for some of us who are skeptical of the promises of technology in education, now is as good a time as any to remind educators you cannot replace the dynamism of a real classroom with Google Classroom.