5 Things People Are Learning –And 5 We Aren’t– About Online Learning In 2020

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It’s been two months since most of the world’s physical classrooms closed down. Some were unable to transition to online learning gracefully, other were not able at all. Many refused to, arguing about how unfair it would be. The question “is grading during a pandemic grading privilege?” rose up here and there.

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But a great deal of classrooms did manage to switch online. It was the farthest things from a controlled experiment. (Although there could be room for natural experiments down the road.) Still, time has passed and people want answers. Some out of legitimate concern, others with agenda, but above all people who had incomparable, screaming-to-their-face type of experience with online learning. And now they want to know if it was all worth it.

№1. An online ‘Great Gatsby’

Was it all just a glimmering veil for a void way of life? A nostalgic account of the lively discussions classrooms were known for way back when, for which the mosaic of faces on a screen reminds us it is long gone, if it ever existed at all?

The New York Times (paywall) shares some anecdotes of teachers adapting to online teaching, beginning with the case of a first-time virtual literature teacher. Weeks after her first lesson, she realizes some students have issues getting her at all during her live reading of Gatsby. The feedback she got from students, was almost serendipitous. She retooled to provide recordings of the lessons. Was that enough? What feedback isn’t she still getting? How okay is it to pretend things are going fine because nobody is saying anything? And would it be fair or unfair to suspect a similar dynamic of disinterest toward improving the process had been taking place long before the virtual classroom, possible over the course of decades?

Across the piece’s accounts, there seems to be a sense of futility embedded in efforts to make live sessions more engaging. The article recognizes the many ways evaluating engagement during lockdown learning arrangements impairs the scientific research process. Yet it is able to state that “it’s generally harder to keep students engaged with virtual lessons no matter the content.”

№2. Parents don’t believe online college is worth the same

In what the Darmouth college paper claims to be one in a national wave of individual and class action lawsuits, the Ivy League university is being suit for not refunding any of the tuition after its move to online learning. As the allegations claim, the university —as most all of them— “sells an experience.” Experiential learning, social interaction and personal attention from the top faculty are part of the package. To accomplish that, the university charges a series of fees, which sometimes can be broken down and related to on-premise activities. Despite whether the fees are itemized or not, the lawsuit argues that premise-based services should not be charged. Another argument is the comparison of fees between online or Hybrid programs versus on-campus, which can differ wildly; and lack of clarity about their differences during the pandemic. While most universities, including Ivy League, have expanded on online education in several fronts, alone or supported by OPMs, platforms or other partners; in the case of Dartmouth the fact that only two programs, a reduction from previous years, are offered online, is used as an argument for the importance of campus-based activities.

№3. All the curves that remain to be flattened

I’ve always thought that, to better understand the importance of lockdowns and social distancing measures, “bottleneck” would have been a better object to address than a “curve.” As it turns out, urban life is largely ruled by bottlenecks, and the pandemic isn’t going to do anything to systematically address them.

But it might dent them a little bit. As WIRED UK reports, the University of Cambridge is putting in place a series of measures to limit the number of people on campus at a given time. Probably unbeknownst to the community leaders, these overcrowding measures will lead to fewer bottlenecks in other parts of the campus life, from traffic to queuing at the cafeteria.

Unfortunately, the pervasive “fixed mindset” sees these measures as palliative at best, rather than radical breakthroughs into better relationships between people and knowledge. It is not difficult to see the number of academic imposition that have no bearing into the educational process, and yet remain a staple of online education.

№4. The countless ways to make distance education possible

As small steps are taking by individuals and local NGOs to bridge some of the gaps in the digital divide, a new inequality becomes apparent. Children from families with low household incomes face several challenges, but many of them are not part of community-based intervention.

The Hechinger Report discloses some of the organizations that work with those who do. Devices for Students, Digital Bridge K-12 (from EducationSuperHighway), DonorsChoose’s Keep Kids Learning and Digital Promise are just a few initiatives who have been pushing for donations, both monetary and in digital kind, who will alleviate the gap for a lucky few.

№5. The best technology is student care

The locked down NYT article does recognize that “what supports students have” is a better explanatory candidate for their satisfaction and performance during the virtual sessions. Yet it fails to accept that a better methodological process is needed, leaning again on the side of futility. “Physical presence matters in ways that are not captured by the scientific method,” claims the article without a whiff of irony. The scientifically literate know that the process shortcomings are never a reason to stop improving science altogether. In the same paragraph, a couple variables are offered, which could be the basis for more informed research. For starters, having a teacher “grilling” the student in class, with no critical commentary to add, is both deemed as a benefit of the physical classroom experience, and neglected as a factor worth looking into through the lens of the scientific method.

The article does recognize what the majority of the elearning community knows: Support is everything. For students, it is essential to track progress, discuss hurdles and challenges, provide accountability. For teachers, it is the ability to put in place strategies, clearly understanding the process of institutional buy-in, and having a network in which to exchange findings. (A bonus lesson: Against all better judgement, the best support system for teachers out there seems to be Facebook and the sprawling ecosystem of Facebook Groups.)

Summary: The things we are not learning

Unfortunately, while the pandemic became a challenge in online learning, and for many reasons a welcome one, a majority of cases were developed under extreme duress, brought upon by financial, talent and time limitations, or a combination of them all. A more open-minded view of the situation, if perhaps a bit biased, should have been encouraging towards any progress that then could be properly shared towards the community; and forgiving of any mishaps, especially if these weren’t directly caused by the elearning experience.

Here are 5 general lessons that aren’t being learned, but whose nescience will continue to shape the debate on online learning.

  1. Being unable to deliver on the experience online is not evidence enough to prove it is impossible. This is perhaps the argument most commonly fallen on deaf ears. Few people were able to change their views during the lockdown, to understand that an online roll-out takes a great deal of planning. In al likelihood, the new normal would only increase the planning requirements and a critical evaluation of assumptions.
  2. No existing online and distance education experiences, from the common and average to the leading and award-winning, was designed to be pandemic-proof. Critiques and advocates alike should know as much. For students who didn’t have any issues, both general and technical, the process hasn’t been smooth sailing. And for the digitally underserved, lack of functional devices or stable connectivity is met with poorly designed lessons and patience-exhausted teachers.
  3. Learning organizations have poor or deficient risk management process in place. This one applies to all economic institutions as a whole. To be fair, among the Risk Management community there is an ongoing debate on how much of a “black swan” is this crisis. Was it improbable, or likely? Was the impact properly estimated? Did we have the knowledge and technology to be ready for 99.95% of the scenarios? Nevertheless, better understanding the dynamics of a crisis —and previous crisis— is essential learning. Of which educational institutions should be exemplary.
  4. The internet continues to be largely unregulated. Not to advocate for regulation per se, much less provide more opportunities for authorities with a history of overreach to exert more unaccountable power. But the past decade has shown that the profit motive moves at the speed of information, while information itself isn’t as readily on the hands of consumers, users and citizens as we would hope. Rules on issues of inter-state accreditation, the role of for-profit universities —mixed with public subsidies—, charter schools and Online Program Managers, have remained in debate for years.
  5. Education, especially Higher Ed, continues to be financially unaccountable and to a large extent designed at the service of student debt. Much like the internet itself, online education was first seen as a utopia, and then saw the many personal riches it could unleash, proving yet again the limits of market-based coordination of intangible resources.

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