The pandemic has taught us lessons - Keith Roulston editorial
Experts tell us that there are some things that will never go back to pre-pandemic normal when the COVID-19 crisis finally ends. One of the changes is likely the death of the dream of automated education.
Back in 2019 B.C. (before COVID), Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government announced plans to require students to take a minimum of four e-learning credits to graduate. While it was an experiment, you could almost see the wheels turning inside the heads of government officials.
In a province facing a soaring debt, education is the second biggest budget item and the biggest part of education’s price-tag is teachers’ salaries. In the private sector, when wages and salaries get too high, they’re reigned in either through off-shoring manufacturing or through technology. Since today’s students are the most tech-savvy in history, why not try technology? It would also centralize education, eventually leading to the replacement of local boards of education and, as a delicious side-effect, would give the Premier the upper hand in his long scuffle with teachers’ unions.
The pandemic, and the need to close schools to help limit the spread of the virus, sped up the experiment as students of all ages were forced to take classes online. Certainly the ad lib nature of this hurried transition made it harder for remote education to be successful, but the warnings of critics about automated education have certainly been borne out.
For one thing, remote education has spotlighted the inequities in our society. Many families simply couldn’t afford computers or tablets. Schools and school boards often found ways to get their students computer devices, but there was still the problem of connecting to the internet. Many families couldn’t afford the monthly fee. Even if they could, the quality of connection matters. If there are several students in the household trying to take remote lessons at the same time, the system may freeze. And then there’s the many rural homes that have no access to high speed internet.
Even if the technical issues are overcome, there are still problems. In recent years students with special needs were integrated into regular classrooms. Initially, educational assistants (EAs) provided special assistance to them. As budgets tightened, however, the EAs disappeared and teachers and special needs students were left to fend for themselves. This is difficult in a classroom, but impossible in internet learning. “You can’t program separately,” a teacher explained to me.
While in the long term of online education it might not be a problem, during the recent emergency experiment teachers have often had to pause their lessons to show some of their students how to do things through their computers or tablets.
Concern for the different abilities of students to cope with distance learning has always been a criticism of those who opposed the plan, but even high-performing students have been experiencing problems. One bright student I know complains of getting depressed when she can’t get help if there’s something she can’t understand. There’s no going up to the teacher after class to get clarification. Even students who regularly have high grades have seen their marks drop during remote learning.
Then there’s the problem of the exhaustion that comes from staring at a screen all day (something experienced by anyone who has meetings via Zoom). Often, the student said, you can think you’re concentrating but you realize after a while that you’ve drifted off and missed something.
And then, of course, there’s the break in social connections that has resulted from kids not being able to attend school with their friends. There’s more to learning than just assembling facts. Kids learn important socialization skills in the hallways and lunch rooms.
The dream of bringing “efficiency” to education ignores the need for person-to-person contact, whether among students and friends or between students and their teachers. Humanity has been stripped out of many industrial processes, such as assembly lines in large meat processing plants or the conveyor belts of Amazon warehouses.
One thing we should have learned from the isolation enforced on us by the pandemic is that people need people. What is the point of efficiency if we miss out on the things that matter to us most?
Governments need to remember that, but then the rest of us need to be willing to pay the price for those human connections that matter so much, as we’ve been reminded. When we pressure governments for the lowest possible taxes so we can buy bigger cars or take vacations, there are other more important things we may be sacrificing.