A study published by Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, and The Washington Post’s interpretation of it, shows the dangers of trying to analyze change, in this case, the transition from traditional teaching to online delivery, prompted by the pandemic. According to the study, there was an 83% increase in the number of high school and college students who failed at least two subjects, rising from 6% to 11%.
To try to extrapolate from such results some kind of problem with online versus face-to-face education is misleading at best, but is one of the most common symptoms of resistance to change: to conclude that after an isolated test, a new method does not work as well as the previous one.
Online teaching, as delivered during the pandemic, is obviously not as good as face-to-face teaching. Anything else would be a miracle: it was carried out under emergency conditions, in which practically any type of innovation in methodology was rejected, and with students and teachers typically lacking in equipment and training. Where have the worst results been produced? In children whose temperament, socioeconomic level or family situation made it difficult for them to perform adequately academically. And that in Virginia… if we had included in the study children in Indonesia or India, who have to walk to certain places or even climb trees to get cellular connectivity, the results would have been, surely, even more conclusive.
We are faced with a common problem: that technology is magic and will automatically improve results by itself, simply by doing the same thing as before. If we really want to develop online teaching, using computers to actually replace classrooms, rather than a mere substitute at times of crisis, we will have to go about things very differently. Do students hate online classes? Yes, when what they are being taught is not adapted properly, and is instead merely a reproduction of the classroom and involves listening to a person talking to a camera for an hour. Under these conditions, learning is not just hard work, so is staying awake. That said, not all children hate it: for some, it works very well.
The future of online learning involves more than simply doing the same thing we do in a face-to-face class, mainly because it is superior in terms of possibilities. But it means creating content adapted to the medium that takes advantage of those possibilities, creating interactive models that avoid prolonged unidirectional delivery, real-time analytics that evaluate attitude and progress, and even devices that allow the development of more immersive environments and reduce distraction. We will have to create new tools, which are not necessarily an extension of the traditional ones, and develop literacy in those tools that will allow all those involved, both students and teachers, to handle them with total ease (it really isn’t rocket science: technology makes the tools increasingly easier to use).
Developing online teaching implies re-education in the use of technology, unlearning mindset that assume that screens are not for in-depth reading, but a quick scroll from the headline to the end of the paragraph. This will mean learning how to make the most out of digital channels, creating new methodologies and communication approaches, and not recreating on a screen what we used to do in a class.
The possibilities of the online medium are, by its nature, much greater than those of a face-to-face class, and anybody who doesn’t understand this will never be able to take advantage of them. Better access to information, more ways to create attractive formats, to personalize them, to generate involvement, to click on an opinion or to evaluate performance. Even the social aspect of learning can be enhanced.
I have said it many times: if you want to teach online properly, teachers have to do much more work than in a face-to-face session. A face-to-face class is prepared, an online class is produced. If we simply sit in front of the webcam and start talking, or if we just post essay titles by email, we are not giving online class: as the saying goes, if you fail to prepare, you are preparing to fail. It’s not the fault of the online medium.
This post was previously published on Enrique Dans.
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