Online Learning Is an Oxymoron
Summer’s fading, and fall is creeping in. The first few crisp nights of the season trigger the practically primordial nervous back-to-school feeling… When it dips below 75 on an early September evening in Washington, D.C., I reach for a jacket for the first time in months and instinctively flinch at the thought that I haven’t finished my summer reading for Mr. Coffin’s 10th grade English class. Some things never change… But, as we all keep hearing these days, a lot of things may never be the same.
Even so, all across the country, school – such as it is – is back in session… technically.
Or, in many cases, technically not… The hygienically defensible substitutes for school that students and their parents are required to adopt in the school districts where those buildings with the long hallways of lockers and rooms with chalkboards and desks stand empty this September…
Only 8% of American adults polled this July wanted to see schools open “as usual.” Well, the majority’s getting its way. Nowhere is public life “as usual.” Until students can safely gather together in closed spaces, school will not be the way it used to be before – and ought to be again.
But reaching even this consensus has been next to impossible. New York City public schools, after the city led the nation in catastrophe and in disaster response, made the last-minute decision on the first of the month to further delay their long-scheduled September 10 opening by another 11 days. The all-powerful teacher’s union made the case to the mayor and won. But such a sudden change at a certain time doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in public schools’ readiness to respond to the demands of the new reality… chief among them, the need to give schoolchildren a sense of safety and consistency. Some schools have adapted by offering, or planning to eventually offer, outdoor classes. Most, though, have moved online.
Online learning isn’t new, but it never totally took over – never fully revolutionized – education in America. Not because we’re a nation of stubborn steady habits, a people constitutionally predisposed to regard revolutionary reforms with the skepticism they’re due… although we often are… But because downloading content to our brains is not what we go to school for.
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Online learning works for a pre-professional graduate student or a so-called unconventional college student, often someone returning to finish their degree later in life and are too old or too weighed-down with real-life responsibilities to live in a dorm – these are people who already know where they’re going with their degree and what they’re going to use it for.
It doesn’t work as well for the much broader class of students who have no idea what they’re doing, for whom school is – or is supposed to be – a place to explore ideas and interactions more freely than they’ll get to anywhere else in life.
Is Online Learning Even Really School?
I’ve given the matter a lot of thought in my annoyingly ample free time this year. I used to teach middle school, and now I’m a graduate student – for the time being, an online-only grad student. School and I can’t get away from each other. To borrow from Charles Portis – who Mr. Coffin never put on the reading list, by the way – as far as school is concerned, I have yet to reach “escape velocity.”
School, life has convinced me, is not a state of mind. School isn’t a growth phase we get to graduate from. And, no, it’s not a remote-learning experience.
School is, by definition, a place. Truly: Merriam-Webster has it as “a place for teaching and learning”… Cambridge, “a place where children go to be educated”… the OED calls it an “establishment or institution for the formal education of children or young people” (but we know they’re not really talking about a livestreamed lecture and daily assignments uploaded to the cloud). The Latin noun scola, because I know you were wondering, most commonly refers to “an area with benches.” Benches before which a magister holds forth and instructs his discipuli. Those were the days…
Of course now, in an era recently redefined by terror of germs flying among captive crowds, the image of a bloviator in a toga wetly enunciating his consonants to a sea of vulnerable young immune systems – I mean, minds – should worry us. While there are documented cases of otherwise healthy children contracting COVID-19, ostensibly recovering and then suffering lingering symptoms for months, the greatest risk is still to the old and infirm. Most primary-school-age children learn better in school. But every one of those learners represents another interconnected web of people to worry about even more urgently… parents, grandparents, other older relatives, other teachers – anyone for whom viral transmission presents a graver risk.
We live in a nation approaching 200,000 dead by a new disease that the lasting effects of which we know next to nothing about. Not knowing makes the daily business of school – which depends on patterns of predictable yearly progress – functionally impossible, but also urgently necessary.
No one of the Jobs or Zuckerberg clans came through to save the day. Don’t these people traffic in disruptive paradigm shifts?
It should have been the breakthrough moment for high-tech innovation in education reform… Just about every billionaire tech philanthropist has his or her own patented plan to save public schooling – all of them expensively debuted to varyingly underwhelming results. But no one of the Jobs or Zuckerberg clans came through to save the day. Don’t these people traffic in disruptive paradigm shifts?
One reason for their awkward silence in education technology’s time of need could be the same old problem all this school-reopening confusion (and every ambitious school-reform idea) makes embarrassingly apparent… It’s possible school was pretty much OK the way it was. Now that it’s gone, we mostly just want it back.
Every presidential administration since the Department of Education was established has attempted some manner of sweeping “school reform.” Reagan’s doomy portrait of American public schooling in A Nation At Risk inspired a panic that was, in retrospect, probably a little overblown… or at least not immediately productive or especially helpful. It was 20 years before a sweeping policy plan to test whether schools were actually working – No Child Left Behind – passed with support from both parties.
It’s looking increasingly possible as the years pile up that back when the school-reform fever first started, the nation wasn’t actually at risk… Now, of course, it really is.
But then 15 years later, another new school reform law came along, the Every Student Success Act, which had equal bipartisan support, and reversed what a policy wonk would call its core mandate. Apart from the confusion among teachers and parents that results from every new batch of bold changes to the way we teach and learn in this country!, very little about American schooling has actually changed in the last 40 years. It’s looking increasingly possible as the years pile up that back when the school-reform fever first started, the nation wasn’t actually at risk…
Now, of course, it really is.
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There’s still no COVID-19 vaccine. And until we have one, it’s too soon to attempt normality. It’s too soon to forecast when school will resume as it was before. But it’s not too soon – actually it’s probably the ideal time – to say, out loud, why we need it to.
Postponing college for a semester, or taking classes online while pining for your friends, doesn’t disrupt cognitive development the way missing out on phonics might throw a generation of readers off track. But online learning just doesn’t work as well for school-age children… Intensive in-person pre-school and kindergarten have a proven record of increasing children’s likelihood to pursue college and avoid prison. And online learning also doesn’t work for families with young children whose parents work full-time or outside the home… Logging into digital kindergarten is pretty pointless without a parent present to pay attention throughout the school day.
Well beyond those first few years, the proof is in the Scantron… Students’ standardized test scores suffer from online-only schooling – according to a now prescient-seeming 2017 study of online charter school students. And in a naturally occurring study of the effect of widespread distance learning on SATs averages declined this year: Down to 1051 out of 1600 in 2020, after having averaged 1068 as recently as 2018.
Increased enrollment at private schools – many of which went ahead and, with no union to answer to, opened their doors – tells us that those who can are now paying for what they used to get for free. According to a recent polling analysis by Neal McCluskey at the Cato Institute, private schools may already be looking at an enrollment bump as big as 40%.
An exodus of affluent families isn’t going to help public schools bounce back any sooner. And reopening at higher than normal capacity puts private school kids and their families at risk. At the private day school in Connecticut where I taught English for two years after college, it wasn’t uncommon for a child’s grandparents to pay their yearly tuition. Assuming the same pattern applies to COVID-era families transferring their children into private schools, a kiss on grandma’s cheek during the early days of an undetected COVID outbreak takes hold at the country day school could turn a gesture of grandparental largesse into the ultimate sacrifice…
The safer alternative trend is to hire a freelance teacher, an in-home tutor, or a shared multifamily instructor to lead a homebrewed microschool – what people are calling “pods.” They create a semblance of the community kids lost when schools closed. Some are formally organized and seeking foundation funding, asking a set cost that decreases with every student admitted to the pod. The Hudson Lab School in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York markets its pods – starting at $13,000 per child per semester – to parents who’ve seen their children’s academic progress flagging since the spring and are now watching school districts fail at the task of a safe and organized reopening. Others, meanwhile, are more informal: Just klatches of concerned parents pitching in to hire tutors and hoping for the best, banking on backyard micro-school being better than no school at all.
The appeal of a cozy, convenient, and hyper-controlled small-group pod school may well outlast the pandemic. But so will the long-term effects of a widening education gap: It’s only those families who can afford to who are banding together to build boutique in-person schools for their kids – or who are making the leap to prep school. With mandatory masks indoors and added precautions in the dorms and dining halls, boarding schools are back in session – with their business model looking more secure than it has since the sixties.
School had never seemed so essential… You need your kids out of the house if you’re working from home – but your kids need to be out of the house, too. Because their work is learning alongside each other without you there, in harmony and conflict.
Meanwhile, at the largest urban school districts in the country, it’s all cobwebs in the classrooms and tumbleweeds rolling down the dusty halls. As with every collective crisis our country faces, affluent families are managing fairly well all things considered – and poor families, whose children have the most to gain from an education outside the home, fall further behind.
School had never seemed so essential… You need your kids out of the house if you’re working from home – but your kids need to be out of the house, too. Because their work is learning alongside each other without you there, in harmony and conflict. Not necessarily paying attention… making messes, cleaning them up, hoping you don’t find out about it… passing notes, hurting each other’s feelings, and finding ways to recover without their parents around.
For those who can afford to safely recreate the most important – the definitional – qualities of school for their kids, it’s worth the cost even during a protracted economic downturn. The part of schooling that you really can’t put a price on is the unquantifiable aspect of it. A healthy society needs free and open schools, back to the way they were, as soon as possible.
Alice Lloyd is a writer and reporter in Washington, D.C., covering culture, politics, and the weirdness in between. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and the Weekly Standard.