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If the Coronavirus quarantine has taught educators one thing, it’s this.

physical classroom

Online learning is not better than in-person schooling.

After all these years of corporations throwing apps at us and well-meaning administrators providing us with devices and philanthrocapitalists pumping billions of dollars into ed tech first academic schemes, we can all see now that the emperor has no clothes.

When schools nationwide are closed to stop the spread of a global pandemic and learning is restricted to whatever teachers can cobble together on sites like Google Classroom and ZOOM, we can all see the Imperial scepter blowing in the wind.

Kids need to be in the presence of physical human beings in a real environment with their peers to maximize their learning.

The problem is that this is only clear to parents, students and teachers.

The people who get to make ed policy decisions are as blind as ever – as witnessed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tone deaf insistence that his state reimagine schools with the help of billionaire school saboteur Bill Gates.

But the rest of us – you know, those grounded in reality – can see the problems with remote learning staring us in the face.

Most importantly, the Internet is not a conducive environment for learning.

I don’t mean that learning can’t take place there.

You could learn in a fox hole while being shelled by enemy forces. But if your content extends to something more complex than “Duck” or other survival tactics, this may not be the best place to learn it. After all, environment plays a key role in knowledge acquisition.

Moreover, different people learn things better in different circumstances. And, contrary to our current education policies that view children as stakeholders or consumers, they are in fact people.

There are some children who learn better online than in a brick and mortar classroom. But these kids are few and far between.

In general, the younger the child (both physically and psychologically), the more important it is that he or she be given the opportunity to learn in an actual classroom.

Why?

It really comes down to who controls the environment.

In a classroom, the teacher decides most everything about the physical space and what possibilities there will be. She places the books, hangs the posters, sets the lighting, displays student work, etc.

In a virtual environment, the space is defined to a small degree by the teacher, but it is mostly determined by the ed tech provider and the open world of the Internet.

In short, teachers have much more control over physical classrooms and can remove distractions.

Online, educators have very little control over this.

Line of Sight

For instance, in my physical classroom, if I wanted to see what a student was doing, all I had to do is walk up to him and look.

I controlled what I see, and hiding things from me was difficult.

Online, if I want to see what a student is doing (let’s say on a video communications platform like ZOOM), I have little control over what I see. The student is in control of the camera. If it is pointing at the student or placed so as to hide certain behavior or even if the camera is currently on or not is not in my control. Students are empowered to hide anything they want, and there’s not much I can do about it.

When teaching online, I’ve had students texting on cell phones, playing video games on computers, having side conversations with friends in their bedrooms, playing with pets – and trying to hide this with the way they display themselves on camera.

I’ve had kids mysteriously turn off the camera or point it away from their faces until I ask them to switch it back on or swivel it back to themselves.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

When I first started teaching online a few weeks ago, one of the most powerful tools at my disposal seemed to be the mute button.

If several kids weren’t hearing me because of side chatter, I could simply mute everyone and fill the blessed silence with instruction.

However, I soon discovered that this is deceptive.

Just because you don’t hear the students, doesn’t mean they aren’t talking. Some kids use the online chat stream to continue side chatter. Others forgo that entirely for text and Facebook messaging.

What’s worse, it’s often hard for the teacher to even know whether anything she said is actually being heard.

Too Much Choice

One of the great strengths of online learning is that it gives students an incredible amount of choice. But that is also its greatest weakness.

I can give assignments through a file sharing site like Google Classroom and let students complete it at their own pace.

The problem is that kids (especially young kids) need their pace monitored.

You can’t give them too much time to get something done because many will procrastinate through the deadline.

In my physical classroom, I would often give an assignment and then provide at least some time for them to start it. The idea was that even if they don’t finish it with me, they are more likely to complete something they already began.

However, online it is completely up to them when to do an assignment. They are responsible for their own time management – and that’s a skill we, as educators, struggle to teach them.

As a result, most students don’t get these assignments done on time – if at all.

Even when they do the work, I’m bombarded by a slew of submissions around midnight or the early hours of the AM.

How to Ask a Question You Don't Know You Have

Then there’s the question of… well… questions.

In my brick and mortar classroom, if a child was unsure of something, all she had to do was raise her hand and ask. Online, there are multiple ways to communicate with me – kids can send me an email, message me or verbally ask me something during a video chat.

The problem is that sometimes they don’t know they’re confused.

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In my physical classroom, since all students are working on an assignment together in that same time and space, I can go from desk to desk and see how they’re progressing.

If they’re getting something wrong, I can correct it in real time. I can give suggestions and encouragement even before the work is done.

Online, I’m mostly limited to commenting on the final project. If a student didn’t understand the directions – and didn’t even understand that he didn’t understand the directions – I don’t know until the work is done.

This presents a problem. Do I explain the error and ask him to to do the work all over again? Or do I explain the error but accept the work for what it is?

I’ll admit, I usually do the later.

Students M.I.A.

Which brings me to mysterious absences.

I don’t mean kids who don’t show up to video conferences – though there are many of those.

I mean kids who for all intents and purposes appear to be there in ZOOM and then suddenly disappear never to return that day.

They could have a device or Internet issue. And if this happens every once in a while, it’s understandable. But what about kids who do this all the time?

If your iPad isn’t charged one day, I guess things happen. But if it isn’t charged everyday, that’s a problem. Your problem – one you need to solve.

I know every district is different in this regard, but my school provides every student with devices and even WiFi if necessary. Even in the physical classroom, using devices always came with a chorus of whines about them not being charged.

Once again, we’re putting this responsibility on students and families. In the days before distance learning, we could question whether that was fair. In the Coronavirus dystopia, we have little choice but to do it.

However, this brave new world even makes an issue out of bathroom breaks.

In the brick and mortar classroom, kids would ask to go to the restroom and then be sent one at a time. Online some kids just turn off their camera or leave it idling on an empty seat or the ceiling. It is next to impossible to tell whether these breaks are genuine or even to estimate their duration.

Some students are gone for the majority of the meeting. In a world where video conferences are few and far between, is it so much to ask that you use the restroom BEFORE going to ZOOM?

Invaders

But let’s not forget unwanted guests.

These platforms require students to know a dedicated Web address and sometimes a password to get in.

Yet these are children. They sometimes share these security measures with people who were not invited.

Even in my physical classroom, sometimes students not on my roster would try to get in to talk with a friend or even just sit in on my amazing lessons. I could stop them at the door and send them on their way.

Online, some sites like ZOOM give me similar power, and others like Kahoot (a game based learning platform) do not. Even when every person entering has to be approved by me, all I see is the name they’ve given their device. If an enterprising stranger wanted to rename their device to that of one of my students, I probably wouldn’t catch it until they were in.

There have been several times when someone with one of my students’ names got into a ZOOM meeting, but either refused or couldn’t turn on their camera. I had no choice but to boot them out.

On some sites like Kahoot, there is no video. I had no idea who was signing in – I just saw the name they input.

So sometimes I had two students with the same name. Or I had let’s say 8 kids in the class but 9 kids were signing on to Kahoot.

It’s maddening!

Assessments and Cheating

Now let’s talk tests.

I don’t like tests. I think they can too easily become cruel games of “guess what the testmaker was thinking.”

But they are a necessary evil to judge what information students have learned. Moreover, a creative teacher can design them to reduce the regurgitation of facts and increase critical analysis backed by facts.

In a physical classroom, teachers can monitor students during test taking. Online, they can’t. So there’s always a question of cheating.

Every scrap of information in human history is available somewhere online. If students try hard enough, they can find the answer to any question with a deft Google search.

However, to be honest I don’t think I’ve had too much trouble with this as yet. My students either don’t care enough to cheat, cannot figure out how to do so effectively or have too much self respect.

Or maybe I just haven’t caught them.

In the physical classroom, I had several students try to pass off others work – essays or poems – as their own. But I haven’t assigned anything so ambitious through distance learning yet.

Conclusions

Perhaps that’s why it drives me nuts when policymakers and media types make statements about what an overwhelming success this has all been.

Teachers and districts have tried their best. Students and families are giving their all. But this experiment does not demonstrate why we should all embrace distance learning once the Coronavirus pandemic is under control.

It shows why we MUST return to the brick and mortar classroom as soon as it is safe to do so.

Reimagining school will not require more ed tech.

It may require much less.

Kids need to be in the presence of physical human beings in a real environment with their peers to maximize their learning.

We need smaller classes, equitable funding, desegregation, social justice, wide curriculum, and an end to high stakes testing, school privatization, science denial and anti-intellectualism.

But more than anything, we need policymakers who are willing to listen to and include the people on the ground when making decisions that affect us all.

kids

Steven Singer
Gadfly On The Wall