The coronavirus pandemic has thrust us into the future in some ways whether we like it or not. Forced to stay at home, even those of us who might have been ambivalent about our phones or satellite/cable connections or social media now depend on our technology much more than we had before. We Zoom and Facetime with our families and friends, work at home, meet with our doctors online, devour whatever is on Netflix or Prime Video, order food from whatever app we can on our phones, buy anything and everything from Amazon to deliver to our doors. Resistance is futile.
But the trend that the virus has accelerated at warp speed is education, with classes from kindergarten to college being held online. The problem is, as I’ve heard anecdotally from my just-graduated-from-high-school grandson, his first-grade sister and their mother, and according to the evidence stacking up from school districts around the country, online learning can be challenging in a multitude of ways. Even for kids who are bright and self-motivated, it can be boring. For kids who are struggling, it can be confusing and frustrating. For those without Internet access, computers or workspace at home, it can be impossible. And for teachers who have never learned to teach using the technology, it can be the last straw.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the experiment to educate more than 50 million K-12 students online during lockdown this school year “just didn’t work.” Teachers found the transition away from the classroom difficult, and students found the transition from what they do every day on their phones, tablets and computers for gaming and communication to what they have to do for school to be a lot harder than anyone anticipated.
Part of it may be the way online classes are structured, though that may vary widely from teacher to teacher, subject to subject, and school system to school system. For example, my six-year-old granddaughter struggled with most subjects online but loved the online math games. She had never succeeded in math in a classroom setting. My grandson was a dedicated classroom student in English and history and was also good at math and science. He started online classes before lockdown as part of a special work/study program to finish his high school degree. He found the classes tedious, the equivalent, he said, of completing electronic worksheets. (I admit most work training courses I’ve had to take online have been similar—and deadly boring.) Few teachers have yet learned to really use the technology to advantage in getting lessons across. Too often they’re just translating their lectures to video, which lack even a human connection.
Many students nationwide complain that teachers give too much work with their online classes. This, apparently, is a function of not understanding fully how long it takes to complete a task on the computer, or maybe just being too enthusiastic about the new technology. It’s clear many assignments don’t take into account the circumstances many students find themselves in—a distracting environment, sharing space and computers, parents that may be working at home (or not home at all, due to work requirements), and the need for individual attention from the teacher, which may or may not be possible.
Some students do well with classes that are recorded for playback at a later time, with teachers available at set times for questions. Other students might never watch the recordings at all. Classes held on platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams, with all the students present in a virtual classroom setting have their own problems, according to one eighth-grader from New York City in an opinion piece in the New York Times. Not surprisingly, Veronique Mintz observes, the same teachers that “struggle to manage students in the classroom also struggle online.”
In a suburb of Washington D.C., Fairfax County schools have had problems with two separate online platforms, first the commonly-used college system Blackboard, then, when students flooded that platform with obscene, racist and homophobic messages, the newer Google “suite” of tools, including Chat and Meet. Now students are receiving unwanted personal bullying messages from Chat, presumably authored by their virtual classmates. The school system’s IT staff are outclassed by the bullying students, who, according to Tim Schaad, a Fairfax parent and cybersecurity specialist, “are running circles around administrators.”
That’s a rich people’s problem, of course. Thornier still is the problem of those many students who don’t have access to computers or the Internet at all. A recent story in USAToday relates how one mom saw a teenager sitting on the curb outside a Subway in Starke, Florida with a Chromebook in his lap. She turned her car around to check on him. Turns out he was using the restaurant’s WiFi to do his homework. He had no Internet access at home. The article goes on to detail the lengths to which the Jacksonville, Florida school district has gone to provide computers and mobile hotspots to more than a third of its 110,000 students. Still, over 200 students remain without access.
Here in Madison County, in the mountains of Western North Carolina, funds are not available for such an effort. While we’re still in lockdown, kids can sit outside the library or in the parking lots of schools if they don’t have Internet at home, and some computers have been made available, but not nearly enough. So, like in years far past, the children of Appalachia will be falling further behind the longer we remain in lockdown.
At least they can remain blissfully ignorant of the cruelty their peers can deliver via Google Chat or the Comments section at “school.”
*Information for this post provided from:
"The Results Are In For Remote Learning: It Didn't Work," by Tawnell D. Hobbs and Lee Hawkins, The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/schools-coronavirus-remote-learning-lockdown-tech-11591375078
"Why I'm Learning More With Distance Learning Than I Do In School," by Veronique Mintz, The New York Times, May 5, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/05/opinion/coronavirus-pandemic-distance-learning.html