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Plenty of Distance, Not Much Learning

July 23, 2021

Those of us who are professional educators probably want to shoot the next administrator who starts a conversation and/or email that begins with the phrase “In these unprecedented times…” Not only is it an unnecessary modifier (does it actually deepen our understanding of what follows?), it is intolerably cliché. It reminds me of a line from the television show Doc Martin:

“If it goes without saying, why are you saying it?”

Of course, what ostensibly makes these times “unprecedented” is the global Coronavirus pandemic. Historians, however, might take exception to that statement. There have been many pandemics in history (Live Science lists the twenty worst here) so it seems facile to describe this pandemic, as awful as it is, as unprecedented. However, one thing that is unequivocally without precedent is the affect that COVID-19 has had upon educational instructions. When the Spanish Flu (which originated in Kansas) hit a century ago, approximately 60% of children attended schools. Today, that percentage is approximately 96. So the Kansas Spanish Flu affected schools had to figure out how to continue to educate a significantly smaller percentage of the population than today. Of course, their response was just to keep kids in school, as many of the urban schools at the time offered better hygiene than could be found in tenements and crowded neighborhoods. Today, the decision was made to keep students at home and continue to educate them remotely via their internet connection.

Even though it’s been seventeen months since the pandemic shut down schools last spring, I have not chimed in about the phenomenon of distance/remote learning. The reason is I wanted to spend some time experiencing the different forms, study the research and put careful thought into deciding how I felt about it. My knee-jerk reaction is that it was going to be terrible, but I felt teachers had an obligation to make it work as well as we possibly could. So, I chose to keep an open mind and see if reality and research affirmed or refuted my initial reaction. And after a year and a half of experience, discussions with colleagues and students, and a dive into the research, what is my conclusion?

It is terrible.

First of all, there are a variety of distance learning models that school districts have imposed: one is full distance learning, where every student is at home and the teacher instructs via computer. There is hybrid, wherein half the class is at home and the other half in school for part of the week, then switch places for the rest of the week. Then there is the live stream model wherein some students are in school every day of the week, and others are home every day. Since last March, I have taught using all of these models. While the live stream model is far and away the best approach, it is by no means an ideal way to teach.

Do not get me wrong: I am aware there are students who do well with this model, because they are independent and self motivated. They, however, also do well when they attend in person class, so it’s hard to make the case that remote learning is somehow preferable for those students. I also had three students do well enough to pass my class last year once they were at home, as they were no longer distracted by their social groups and no longer incentivized to blow off their work because it was “cool” to fail classes. I firmly believe that these students would not have passed my class had they continued their in person learning.

Having said that, the number of students who did not succeed dwarfed the number that did. It’s not difficult to see why. For many young people, the ability to focus on academics is challenging enough in an school environment that is conducive to academic focus. Take that away, and then leave students in a place where they are surrounded by all of the things that compete even more heavily for their attention. You don’t need to be on staff at Columbia Teachers College to ascertain what is going to happen next (or what is not going to happen).

That doesn’t take into consideration the students with learning disabilities and/or are neurologically atypical. Many need the structure and the tactile instruction essential for them to learn. Many cannot learn at home without parental support, and if parents are working, there is none to be had. Many students also don’t’ possess a device or quality Wi-Fi in their homes, which makes it very difficult to attend class regularly. Over the next several years, you can expect a significant number of civil rights lawsuits for students with disabilities who did not succeed distance learning.

There is also the social aspect. Whilst anyone who teaches is aware the texted that students engage in what appears to be largely unnecessary drama, and are not always kind to each other, most of them need the social interaction that school provides. As you have no doubt experienced yourself, spending a day at a computer screen interacting with others is paradoxically isolating. Our brains really require the physical presence of others to feel any meaningful connection. For young people who are still developing emotional intelligence (and still lack fully formed frontal lobes), the dearth of social interaction could end up having the most acute long term affects on the students.

There’s also the physical aspect. It is simply not healthy to sit and stare at a computer screen for hours upon end. Aside from the somatic stress on your body from sitting, absorbing the persistent screen radiation is draining for both students and teachers. Yes, we sit a lot at school and use our computers, but there are other types of classes (art, music, physical education) that can offer relief from sitting and staring at a screen. Even walking the hallway or the stairs to the next class is good for you. All of those benefits vanish during distance learning.

As my friend and colleague Nick Ferroni points out, teaching is a vocation built upon relationships. We succeed largely based upon how well we can nurture those relationships. It encourages students to trust us, to cooperate and put in their best efforts, and allows us to immediately intervene when students are not putting in their best efforts or are struggling emotionally. It is very difficult–if not impossible–to form those types of relationships with someone on a computer screen. As Nick puts it, remote learning takes away the best tool we have to be effective.

The research is bearing all of this out. Students are not as successful, they don’t enjoy distance learning, and they are finding that it is adding unnecessary stress to their lives at a time when life is stressful enough, thanks very much. Of course , the problem is scalable: while it is preferable to have some or even most students in the classroom, the percentage that are struggling with distance learning remains static. Of course, while many school districts have said they will return to full time in class learning this fall, we know what could all change depending on vaccination rates and the vigor of the Delta Variant.

Thus, distance learning isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that it is an effective model. While it may be necessary to once again resort to it. it will at best be a necessary evil.

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