Perspective: Is Remote Learning a Panacea for the Pandemic?
I’m concerned about the times we’re in. But perhaps not for the reasons you expect. Yes, I’m concerned about the health and well-being of our globe in the throes of a staggering pandemic, and about its unprecedented toll on the economy. And yes, like so many others, I wish this all had never happened, or at least that it would all just go away. But therein lies the matter I’m most concerned about: I’m worried that we might return to normal.
When the pandemic first arrived, we recognized almost immediately that lockdown meant schools couldn’t function as they had previously. In an attempt to get through the closing months of a school year, educators began offering whatever they had at hand. A massive shift occurred to anything-goes learning models, all pegged with the moniker “remote learning.” While these ranged widely from multiple hours of synchronous Zoom instruction to periodic check-ins—or none at all—they were all hasty solutions to a problem that had caught everyone utterly by surprise. And they were about as effective as one would expect: zoned out kids, frustrated and harried parents, and millions of students left by the wayside.
This educational breakdown was no one’s fault. While we certainly should have acted faster as a nation to contain the pandemic’s spread, nobody expected already-strapped schools to have a contingency plan in place for such a dramatic and unprecedented shift in learning scenarios for all students.
However, this tumult disguised an ironic casualty: online learning. Amid the struggle of those first months, we did not take the time to emphasize that the educational experience these raucous times generated should not be interpreted as representing the power and potential of online learning. Because of this, millions of Americans’ first experience with technology-mediated learning has brought about some serious misunderstandings of technology’s value. And as we know, first impressions can have a lasting impact.
Opening school again across the country has been an immense undertaking, one involving extensive planning, broad anxiety, and significant social tumult. This work gave rise to multi-phase plans, with options and contingencies ranging from fully-at-home to hybrid. In the precious little time that remained, teachers had to jury-rig face shields, sanitize work stations, organize to protest unsafe conditions, or all of the above. Amid this pandemonium, it’s not surprising that we missed the opportunity to really think through our approach to learning.
Perhaps for as long as classroom education has existed, a tacitly understood social contract has defined what students and teachers must do to fulfill their roles. Teachers are supposed to teach, and students are supposed to absorb what is taught. This transactional model of education runs deep in our national history and personal experience, significantly influencing our expectations of proper behavior and interaction. Educational reformer Ted Sizer helped showcase the effects of this agreement in his fictional account of a teacher, Horace, who exposed the implicit compromises in the teacher-student relationship: we both know this isn’t challenging you, but we’ve got to get through it, so don’t make a fuss and we’ll just keep going. As Sizer wrote so clearly, “Very few high schools ever give their students a clear long-term academic goal and an equally clear signal that it’s the student’s responsibility to get there.”
I’m not denigrating the generous and resourceful work of teachers—teachers have been doing ingenious things to help their students adjust to a new normal, especially considering the challenging limitations of this pandemic. But amid the rush to get some kind of meaningful curriculum in place, we repeatedly see unfortunate compromises taking place in high school and elementary school alike. Teachers are expected, even required, to provide information or lectures. Worksheets stand in as substitutes for reasoning and sense-making activities. Students sit restlessly, if at all.
And where does technology fit in this picture? Currently, it’s plunked smack in the center, in a mediating role designated largely by circumstance. While video technology has been the hero of the pandemic, seamlessly connecting family and loved ones across the country and around the globe and bringing everyone from colleagues to congregations “face to face virtually,” the same attributes that connect us may have erected silent barriers to learning. First, both the form and the inherent constraints of synchronous video technology provide a too-easy pathway to providing what we know is less-than-ideal learning. In the process, technology becomes tightly associated with people’s experience of “remote” (i.e., low-quality) learning, a scapegoat for all the issues and grumbles of our larger predicament. The second effect is more insidious—videoconferencing’s present role as core mediator subtly reinforces the view that learning is something delivered from teacher to student. With actual transmissions as the main medium for interaction—in some cases literally beamed from a live classroom to those opting for remote learning at home—the concept of teachers as purveyors of knowledge reigns dangerously supreme.
There is an alternate scenario, one that casts technology in a different light and exposes the irony of the many complaints about remote learning. When properly used, technology can put learners in the driver’s seat, revealing unseen worlds for STEM learning, and fostering key skills in collaboration, argumentation, critical thinking, and problem solving. Simulations and online environments can provide worlds that beckon students to explore natural principles. Tools for discovery allow learners to posit and test their own hypotheses, create and run models to investigate their ideas, and make original discoveries. With the proper use of technology—all available now and ready during the pandemic—teachers can actually step back, giving students agency over their own learning and allowing them to take responsibility for developing and communicating their ideas. Technology can serve as an incredibly rich platform for active learning, using tenets of online learning that have been well established for decades.
But wait, some might say—if our current situation is temporary, why worry so much about all this? Therein lies the problem. Rather than highlighting its amazing strengths, we’re too often placing shallow uses of technology center stage. When the dust settles, what will we have learned? My biggest fear is that we may come away having acquired the view that remote learning means second-rate learning, and having learned to associate technology with compromised educational experiences in the process. In that scenario, a natural reaction would be to breathe a sigh of relief that we can return to normal, relaxing back into the now-even-more-familiar groove of teacher-to-student delivery that Sizer’s Horace would recognize all too well.
We stand at a juncture that will prove pivotal for educational technology’s role in years to come. If we take the right path, we have the opportunity to transform education itself for millions of students. But we must think carefully and broadly about how we use this moment, because the alternative could squander this opportunity or even set us back years in the process. The pathway to powerful learning is well understood. The freedom to make use of game-changing tools and resources lies before us, offering a much more promising future than a simple return to “normal.”
Let’s commit now to taking that second path. If we do, we can create a new, better future, one in which we see technology as an ally to high-quality, life-changing education, and in which we empower students to take control of their learning in new ways. Join us, and help pave the way to a better normal once the crisis has finally passed.
Chad Dorsey (email@example.com) is President of the Concord Consortium.