Will online education finally start to take over?

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The lockdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic has meant kids of all ages are unable to attend school classes. This is particularly problematic for older kids – advanced high school and post secondary – because their future careers are being interrupted in a significant way.

This is not so much a factor for younger children. Yes they are missing the classroom sessions we have all been subjected to in school and all the advantages that come with that experience. This includes in depth presentation of new material by teachers; careful explanation of assignments (the kind of explanations so often missing from online assignments), and, of course, immediate and personalized interaction with teachers and other students.

Motivated students will overcome these obstacles. But hard-to-motivate students will simply not bother. Especially where assignments are considered optional – as is the case in Ontario these days.

Technical Issues
To some extent these are technical, logistical issues. In many cases teachers do not have the technical equipment or know how to put together compelling lessons. This is not just a matter of having the right audio and video equipment and the appropriate connections to get their material online.

Yes that is important. But equally important, and a much more difficult problem to solve, is the teacher’s lack of presentation skills. Lessons are often sketchy and somewhat informal. A Grade 11 student I know recently said to me: “The teacher doesn’t even bother to record a presentation…like a Youtube video.”

Exactly. That would involve actually creating a coherent, step by step, presentation. And judging from the assignments I’ve seen, elementary and high school teachers just don’t do that sort of thing. They are more into pointing their students to resource materials done by others and having the students read or listen to those resources.

This is not meant as a criticism of teachers as much as it is a suggestion that teaching in an online environment is different. It involves different skills, and has to be approached differently from classroom teaching. Attempts to put classrooms online with products like Zoom are, at best, experimental. And many of these experiments will prove to be flops. Different subjects will require different approaches. And there is no way to know what works until it is tried and refined.

When you add the often slip shod (incomplete, informal) way lessons are presented to the fact that assignments are usually not “marked” or commented on in a serious way, you end up with much of the “teaching” being foisted onto the students themselves. In another setting or another era this may have been desirable. But, once again, motivated students will do well in such an environment. Unmotivated ones, not so much.

Political Issues
The other problem is political. In Ontario, teachers’ unions have a vested interest in online teaching proving to be ineffective. It would be foolish to suggest teachers are going to intentionally try to torpedo online efforts. But it is not unreasonable to assume they are sitting on the fence, hoping this doesn’t result in big changes to the system they are used to and that treats them quite well.

After all, this was one of the issues they recently were striking over. The successful implementation of online courses will inevitably result in fewer teaching jobs. And many of these jobs will require skills the current crop of teachers simply do not have.

So we have little reason to think teachers will be working hard to demonstrate how replaceable they are.

In spite of that, the era of online education is upon us; and that will result in an across-the-board evaluation of all aspects of the educational establishment.

The truth is we may look back on this period as the beginning of an era of of serious educational reform. The kind of reform that can only result from a major shock to the status quo. That shock has been forced on us by the coronavirus pandemic. And as with so many of our familiar modes of social interaction, I think it is highly unlikely we will ever return to things the way they were even six months ago.

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