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Why online learning is an oxymoron in elementary schools

Aaron S. Bayley

In the current school year, the normal rules and routines of the classroom have become less important than the health and safety protocols surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. The word "unprecedented" is getting bandied about a lot, but it's true. There has not been anything like this in our lifetime.

When governments and citizens are not prepared to deal with global pandemics—and even when they are—uncertainties and ambiguities over personal codes of conduct are sure to arise in public life. The same holds true for elementary schools, where children, the most vulnerable members of society, congregate on a daily basis to learn, play, and socialize.

Public school teachers are all too familiar with the way in which governments, school boards, and administrators adopt corporate jargon to address pressing action: teachers and students must "think outside the box," develop a "growth mindset," and be prepared to "pivot" like a point guard under duress from all angles. In short, teachers must acknowledge and embrace the "21st century classroom." In other words, they must accept that digital technology will continue to play a significant role in how children are educated. But "online," or "distance," or "remote"—choose your adjective—learning, whether under emergency circumstances or as a long-term alternative to the classroom, makes it difficult to implement the best practices for teaching and understanding. It is also harmful to the well-being of children.

The majority of students at my school attended class in person, but in late 2020 when Toronto Public Health confirmed coronavirus cases in at least two classes, requiring exposed students and staff to self-isolate until they were cleared to return to school, many parents panicked and kept their children at home. This has been the case for many teachers at my school, meaning a handful of their students accessed their lessons and tasks from home. What does this look like?

If you look to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, school boards, and administrators to answer this question, you might get the impression that teachers and students are seamlessly and effortlessly using digital technology to interact in new and innovative ways. In this fantasy world, students dutifully log into their Zoom or Google Meet classroom like clockwork and access their lessons with minimal technical difficulties. Teachers use all the bells and whistles at their disposal to create entertaining lessons and provide personalized instruction to struggling students in small groups. Students who are normally hesitant or afraid to speak in class will communicate more freely because they have the option of using the chat feature. While education authorities acknowledge that remote learning is a stopgap measure, the hope is that this so-called "21st century learning" model will replace rote, outdated models.

This idealized online classroom is a far cry from reality.

In my split grade 6/7 class of 25 students, I was fortunate to have most of my students attend school in person between September and the winter break. But the one or two who accessed their work from home in December did not receive the same quality of education and opportunities for learning as their peers. That's just a fact. I had no reservations about sharing this fact with their parents. A split grade class exists not because it is in the best interest of the student but due to economic expedience, and expecting a teacher of a split grade to deliver a quality History lesson to a group of Grade 7s while also tending to a Grade 6 student who is live streaming is irresponsible. If the student is below grade level in Math or Language, there is no way to deliver the type of one-to-one assistance that can be provided by the teacher at school. Students below grade level who are reticent to participate in class are not going to become chatterboxes online. They are going to vanish into the digital ether. Online platforms facilitate passivity and anonymity.

Furthermore, students learning at home can not be accurately assessed. Imagine a scenario where a student with poor reading comprehension and a consistent Level 2 is suddenly submitting Level 4 work online, and their parent is insisting that the work was done by their child with no help from anyone else. Only a teacher completely lacking in integrity will validate that student's online work. But there are teachers who are unwilling or too lazy to distinguish between the quality of work their students perform in class and the work they submit online. Many, for the sake of convenience, will fool themselves into believing the student has somehow miraculously improved. The student will either sincerely believe they have improved or know intuitively that their grades don't correspond with their understanding. Either way, the student suffers.

Then there's the issue of the less-than ideal online platforms.

Even under normal, non-COVID circumstances, relying on online learning models as a means of properly educating children is irresponsible and immoral. Many make the argument that remote learning will have a mostly negative impact on the economically disadvantaged, and while it's true that online learning can marginalize ethnic minorities and the underprivileged, that doesn't mean that children from well-to-do families have it made. Teachers are finding that many students who are homeschooled have gaps in their learning. Many refuse to do any work online due to reasons ranging from lack of motivation to depression. Even if school boards hustle to ensure that every student at home has access to computers, iPads, online texts, high-speed internet, these are just tools that need to be able to facilitate learning. Technology is not a salve that can solve all problems in education.

The Zoom platform is simple enough to set up but riddled with glitches leading to valuable time being wasted. On any given day—and usually every day—students have trouble accessing their virtual classroom, or their microphones don't work, or they can't hear, or they randomly get booted off the platform and have to sign back in, or they are playing video games on another browser, the threat of rebuke from their teacher or parents literally nonexistent. If they don't want to answer a question, they simply leave the meet or remain silent. And children know how to game the system, too. On the day I showed my class WALL-E, a 98-minute Pixar film that addresses themes of sustainability and consumption, not a single student had any technical issues during the film. Must have been a coincidence.

As schools prepare to reopen this week, the Toronto District School Board's policy is that it doesn't support teachers engaging in simultaneous teaching. This is a wise policy. When a teacher attempts to teach a class of 20 or more students in person while also trying to navigate a platform for virtual students, that's not teaching, it's managing. The teacher's priority is to those students in the physical classroom who are waiting to learn, not troubleshooting online, staring at a screen with their backs to their students. Teachers should be omnipresent: in front of a blackboard or Interactive White Board, meeting with small groups of students at a table, visiting with a struggling student at their desk. Sitting in front of a computer and offering help like a tech support worker benefits the corporate model of education that sees delivery of content as its major function. Remote learning does not allow students to effectively address, discuss, and debate societal issues or resolve disputes. Character education cannot be taught online.

As long as school boards and administrators peddle a soft line about what constitutes good teaching and effective learning, the physical/virtual divide will continue to be controversial long after the pandemic. Parents need to be convinced that for their child to receive a quality education–which includes everything from Math instruction, writing essays, character-building tasks, and opportunities to play, socialize, and be enlightened—they need to come out from behind their computers, despite how convenient it has become. A child cannot truly interact with others and learn about the world if they're living in a bubble.


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