With nearly every school in the country closed because of the Wuhan virus, many students are now doing some form of online learning. Instead of entering the classroom and taking their seats before the bell, they now enter a web portal and find the link for their class whenever it works for them.
Their teachers may post pre-recorded videos to watch or schedule a livestream class, and the students may try to watch these. They just need to make sure to complete the few assignments listed for that week and post a comment in an online class discussion. All of it is easy once students have worked through the technical issues.
Meanwhile, their teachers have frantically trained themselves in web development and technical support and are busy putting their content online. As they do this, they must keep track of all their students and make sure they have internet access and can access the school’s website.
Each day greets teachers with a flurry of complaints about logging in, finding a link, uploading assignments, and following the revised grading and attendance policies now that everything is online. In the midst of all this, school administrators will insist on having regular livestream meetings with the faculty to give the same update: every event for the foreseeable future is cancelled.
The current situation is far from ideal, but some influential people are now sensing a great opportunity to make online learning the norm. According to them, whether schools reopen in the fall or not, it only makes sense to expand virtual classrooms and accommodate students who have grown accustomed to staying at home. Most classes, if not all of them, could move entirely online, eliminating the need for physical campuses.
Republican and Democrat governors Jeb Bush and Andrew Cuomo have each publicly advocated for expanded online lessons. Writing for the Washington Post, Bush declares, “Distance learning has the capacity to help students go deeper where their interests take them and get more focused attention in areas where they’re struggling.”
Whereas the teacher in the loud chaotic physical classroom can hardly meet every students’ needs, the teacher at home can happily personalize instruction in the peace and calm of cyberspace, Bush says. Cuomo echoed these sentiments at a press briefing, remarking, “But you get moments in history where people say, ‘OK, I’m ready. I’m ready for change. I get it.’ I think this is one of those moments.”
Trust Us, Spend Millions. It Will Work
On paper (or on the screen?), online learning checks all the boxes of school reform. It has the potential for maximizing student engagement while maintaining a suitable level of rigor and pacing. It is student-centered, offering flexibility for all kinds of learning styles.
Moreover, it can be easily adapted to the ever-changing economic landscape, allowing American students to compete in the global marketplace and specialize their education in high-need areas. It would be like the Vulcan schools in “Star Trek,” with children reciting calculus equations in their learning pods, but homier.
In Bush and Cuomo’s view, the only problem is that students might not have the technology. Therefore—and here is where the real motivation probably lies for the two governors’ boosterism of online learning—schools and districts should spend billions of dollars on more hardware and training so they can make this dream a reality.
If this argument sounds familiar, that’s because businessmen and politicians have been making it for three decades. Year after year, these types have invoked all the buzzwords like “21st-century skills” and “future-ready learning” to persuade countless schoolboards to dump billions of dollars into purchasing laptops, tablets, high-speed internet networks, and all kinds of educational software.
Nevertheless, districts continued to underperform. Naturally, no one concluded that such hefty expenditures on education technology were a waste; rather, many people blamed Luddite teachers who simply refused to properly incorporate these new resources.
Education Isn’t Dumping Facts Into Brains
Unfortunately, even when the circumstances of the past two months have forced educators to digitize their instruction, the shortcomings of technology become painfully clear. While websites and livestreaming applications can supplement and facilitate educational work, it cannot replace the essential learning experience that happens in a physical classroom.
Education is not a direct transmission of ideas; it is a relationship. Unlike emotionless Vulcans who can mentally download abstract content in their solitary bubble, humans require regular personal contact with other people to grow in knowledge and understanding.
Because education is a relationship, it can only work in time and space. Actual presence is required. Students do more than complete assignments in a vacuum; they experience the sensations of a real class: the teacher, the other students, the lighting, the decorations on the wall, the bell that breaks up their schedule, the tones, and all the memories associated with the place.
The personal bonds may vary in strength, but each connection in this space is formative in a student’s identity or sense of self. If these relationships are reduced to abstractions on the screen, they cease to exist for a student. In other words, the people in a classroom are real and have meaning; the people on a website are not real and consequently feel meaningless.
Online Relationships Are Inherently Superficial
Relationships don’t generally function well in cyberspace. People might keep up with their friends through Facebook, but they do not make or deepen their friendships there. It lacks the immediacy, concreteness, and accountability of physical reality.
Online, people cease to be people and turn into mere profiles with some photos, preferences, and random observations made every so often. They communicate superficial information about a person, which is helpful for friends and family who cannot always be together, but will ultimately fail in recreating the experience of that person. Without that experience, there is no relationship.
All of this matters because human beings are relational in their nature, and this forms the basis of how they learn. They form emotional and intellectual attachments to people and things they perceive as real. This attachment provokes curiosity, motivates them to process and understand, keeps them honest in their questioning, and provides true satisfaction when progress is made.
By contrast, none of this happens with people and things on a screen. No amount of videos, photos, and posts will ever move a student to do much more than the minimum counted.
Hence, even the most ambitious students and devoted teachers will feel their energy seep away with online education. The novelty of the asynchronous schedule and individualized instructions wears off, and the class becomes tedious, unfulfilling, and disorienting. The work on both ends just feels like an inconvenience, despite convenience being main selling point of an online classroom.
As Dr. David Deavel puts it when relating his experience with online education, he and his students are “just Zoomed out.” Although we don’t use Zoom, my students and I know exactly how they feel.
Tech Is Fine as a Fork, But Not as the Meal
None of this means that technology cannot play an important role in improving the quality of education. Just like with any other relationship, digital technology and high-speed internet can enhance the bonds formed in real life.
Because of such innovations, teachers and students can better keep up with the work, and parents can be more involved with their children’s learning. No one should take that for granted.
Nevertheless, these benefits disappear as soon as educators try to treat them as replacements of teachers in the “traditional” classroom. Students need to experience the classroom in the flesh, as real human beings. They need to physically interact with their teachers and peers in a familiar environment, not browse and click on various links on a webpage meant to mimic a classroom. This is the only way they will truly learn, and (at the risk of stating the obvious) it is also the only actual way they can prepare for the real world beyond school.