Will Coronavirus Infect Education Too?
The risk of a radical shift to online learning after the crisis ends
With the coronavirus pandemic, every educational institution is rapidly converting to online education. This ubiquitous incorporation of technology is an enormous change from normal day-to-day operations — one that has come with significant challenges. Although critical examinations of educational institutions’ preparation for digital learning are reasonable, another kind of rhetoric has started to creep into the conversational landscape: that this shift to online education is an existence proof that far more education can and should be done remotely.
Some have already started peddling these ideas in the media. The general gist of the argument is that the emergency shift to online instruction shows that educational institutions have always been able to operate online, but have chosen not to do so — possible evidence of a secret financial agenda.
Such a response to the Herculean effort that educators (and students and parents) at all levels are currently undertaking to shift to remote learning has us worried about how some individuals and/or corporations might attempt to weaponize this global pandemic to chart a future educational direction — a direction that even we, advocates of technology in education, regard as detrimental.
To challenge these arguments, we start with a misunderstanding of learning and teaching that underlies many of the calls to fully digitize. Namely, that education is about the “transmission” of knowledge from an expert to a novice. This idea is problematic for multiple reasons, and even more prominent in online educational approaches.
First, learning is not purely a cognitive activity. We do education a great disservice when we describe it as only about memorizing or using facts — knowing the date the Declaration of Independence was written, applying the Pythagorean theorem. Learning certainly involves the mind, but also interactions between students, teacher and student, and learning spaces and tools. Though online models may support some of those interactions, they only scratch the surface when it comes to offering diverse, rich, and multimodal educational experiences.
Second, “transmission” models of education do not produce the most meaningful learning. Unfortunately, most people would define “teaching” as a teacher telling a group of students new information. This is an incorrect, if sticky, misconception. Knowledge is not transmitted, it is constructed when we bring our prior understanding in interaction with new ideas, experiences, and environments. Online environments that afford those kinds of learning experiences are complex and costly to build, and distance education based on “transmission-oriented” approaches have been shown to have terrible success rates.
Third, online learning is neither cheaper nor easier than in-person instruction. Many people presume that creating instructional videos once, means that they can continue to be used in perpetuity without further cost in time or resources. Yet there is extensive research showing that the production and maintenance of an online course can be even more expensive than its offline counterpart. While online learning can offer meaningful learning experiences, doing so will continue to be a time- and resource-intensive endeavor for both the educator and the learner. High-quality online learning is not cheaper.
Fourth, initial uses of technology tend to replicate existing approaches, but the potential of new technology is not in maintaining the status quo but in upending it. We can see this regression to the status quo in the story of the famed “smartboard” (primarily used as an expensive and often less-reliable whiteboard), tablets that are merely a vehicle to display traditional textbooks, and in online teaching which relies on videotaped, conventional lectures. It does not have to be this way. New and emerging technologies can instead be used to tweak or enhance existing structures and systems in ways that leverage their particular educational affordances.
Fifth, technology use does not placate issues of equity in education; in fact, it can make them worse by outsourcing many of the costs of education to families. Online learning is fundamentally mediated by the students and devices used to access this learning. The wealthy have access to better technological systems and larger and more private spaces to participate. Likewise, neurotypical students fare better in such environments than those without additional needs. Online learning does not provide more equitable access to education.
Looking ahead to the end of this historic coronavirus pandemic, educational institutions will have engaged in online remote learning at a previously unprecedented and historic scale. We have a choice, however, about how we choose to view our collective remote learning experience. We can choose to conclude that the studies about online learning have been wrong; that because educators, parents, and caregivers upended their lives to support children during a global calamity, that more and more education can and should be digital and done online. Or we can view this as an opportunity to applaud the enormous effort to flexibly adapt to new educational modes under unprecedented circumstances — and, as the dust settles, invite these professionals (rather than corporations or venture capitalists) to be the ones to chart the course forward.
Wasserman, Holbert and Blikstein are professors in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University.