For Better or Worse, Distance Learning is Here to Stay

Technology is moving ahead with or without us.

We are in the grips of a pandemic, and at this point, most of us will agree that we do not know if we are close to the end of the pandemic, or we may yet be approaching the middle. However, either way, the effects of the pandemic will stay with us long after it ends. Masks, fiberglass shields, disinfectant stations, distancing, and virtual stadium fans are a few of the things that will stick around for a long time. However, one of the most long-lasting changes is our use of distance learning.

In his book, The Nature of Technology, W. Brian Arthur states that society does not adopt technology as much as it encounters technology. As for distance learning technology, the essential cornerstones of the technology have been around for at least 30 years. Online learning was fostered and grown alongside our interaction with the Internet. Some of my classes in the mid-90s were a combination of in-person and online learning. Before the Internet, distant learning was done by VHS tapes and written correspondence.

There have been many technologies in the past that initially promised to change education in a significant way. Thomas Edison thought motion pictures would eliminate the need for textbooks. When radios first made their way into our homes and consciousness, they thought they would be as common in the classroom as the blackboard. An article from the early 1960s predicted that by 1965, human teachers would be replaced by “teaching machines.”

The technology of live video has enabled online learning to take a giant leap in distant learning. Anyone with a smartphone can stream live video to anyone else in the world. The online learning that we are currently engaged in on a massive scale has nothing to do with a new technology that we have suddenly discovered. It is more like a commingling of two things we were already doing: talking to each other with the added use of video and education. As I stated earlier, online education itself is not new, but it does not look anything like it did a few years ago, and it definitely was not on such a massive scale.

It is too early to know the future psychological, social, political, or educational effects of this sudden shift to distant learning on America. The longer schools are operating under 100% capacity, the more noticeable the scare will be in the future. Like any other new technology, this new type of learning comes fully equipped with its own problems. These problems will arise, and if you are a teacher or have spoken to teachers lately, you will be familiar with the set of issues that distance learning packs with it. The automobile solved many problems in its dawn, but it left us grappling with new environmental problems that it introduced to solve the original problem. Antibiotics initially solved problems, but then we had to solve the weakened immune systems issues.

What happens to schools in the next few months will determine what happens to our country. The schools are the canary in the coalmine. If schools open to 100% capacity, there is no reason for restaurants, movie theaters, bars, and events such as weddings and filled sports arenas to open all the way. However, if schools open and COVID-19 breakouts happen to the point they have to close again, there is a chance that the entire economy will take a nosedive and distance learning (one of the few viable options that we have) will become more crucial to our children. We will have to adjust to the technology before the technology can provide all our needs and fix our problems.

Computer technology is like Godzilla roaming through Tokyo and gobbling everything up in its wake. Computers have eaten other technology such as calculators, spreadsheets, radios, televisions, film, sextants, mirrors, magnifying glasses, maps, and tape recorders. Now it is time for it to take over different aspects of our education systems partially. It is not like it is taking over one thing. But it is absorbing textbooks, brick and mortar schools, teachers, bus drivers, etc.

We note that technological advancements are irreversible. If COVID-19 disappeared today, our interactions with remote learning would remain, just like that one person who will not leave your house after the party is over. We are not redefining our technology experience; our technology is redefining us! It is not always a perfect fit initially, but somehow we get used to it, and it becomes the new norm while embedding itself in our society. It comes to us a little shaky and awkward, but the next thing you know, it becomes so ubiquitous that we even fail to notice it anymore.

Ted Kaczynski, the convicted Unabomber, wrote a vast 35,000-word manifesto. He was wrong-headed for sure. But just like a broken clock is right twice a day, in his rambling message, he said something that made sense.;

“The system cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. This has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to guide the technological system. It is the fault of the technology, because the system is guided not by ideology, but by technical necessity.”

He helps make my point that technology is an active and progressive system that we have little control over in the long run. For a new paradigm as distance learning, that means that we will have to learn how to work with it, flaws and all. This means we are the ones who will solve the problems such as quality of instruction, hidden cost, misuse of technology, teacher training, classroom management, unengaged students, and accountability.

Technological change is a Faustian bargain. If you invent a ship to sail the seas, there will be plenty of shipwrecks. If you create the airplane, there will be plenty of crashes to go along with successful flights. Advantages and disadvantages are baked in. However, it is also apparent that these advantages and disadvantages do not affect the entire population evenly.

All of the groups that were not receiving an excellent education in the first place will receive the brunt of the disadvantages. That will be poor people mostly. The lack of resources available to the poor is becoming more prominent during the distance learning bought on by the pandemic. Distance learning, by its existence, is making war against in-person learning. For every success that distance learning experiences, the students who are hurt by it the most are the ones that will pay the prices as this technology will itself spread like a virus after COVID-19 is over.

This type of technological change is not additive. We are not just adding a new way to learn; it is changing everything about learning. African Americans and other people of color have no choice but to adjust to the change and adapt to the new environment. Help is not coming soon because we still have not figured out all of the disadvantages distant learning will cause in the long run. The social and political effects could be devastating in the future.

We have to learn from our present experience while still in the pilot stage of distance learning. As an educator that teaches online for adults and children and a grandfather that watches his grandchildren traverse an online learning system that I can only describe as a hot mess, I have a ringside seat in distance learning. Since the beginning of this semester, I have made many improvements in my online instructions. Online learning is not about just getting information to students. Education has never been about getting information to children. However, getting information out to students is the goal of computer education. We have to fight against the computer’s wants, or we’ll get sucked into its black hole. Technology’s utopia may not be the same thing as our utopia. If school and its online learning tool are only about getting information to students, then why have school in the first place? Children have 24/7 access to all of the information they will ever need.

In other words, teachers must understand they still have to teach. All teachers should take an online course themselves, or schools should give online teacher training, even if it is professional development. This way, they can see the problems that their students have to solve. Teachers will have to ensure that they continue to engage and challenge their students. Call on them the same as it is done in class. One of my students stated about another teacher, “I have been in the classroom with her before, and she is an outstanding teacher. But she struggles with the online classes.” Teachers need proper training to teach online. It is not a natural change from in-person to online learning. Older teachers seem to struggle the most.

It is too early to depend on data to help us move in the right direction. So, for the most part, we are winging it. There are pockets of information under the cover of adaptive learning. With adaptive learning, students move from passive receptors to collaborators of their instruction. This is accomplished through algorithms and artificial intelligence. Every student should have their own unique experience because the lessons are tailored to the individual learner. Can this be done on the massive scale needed now, and will it be cost prohibited? The answer to that question is no. At least not at this time.

Something else to think about is what does adaptive learning (if everything it promises works well) does to teachers and the teaching profession? With customized instruction, teachers will be little more than the facilitators of the content that is being delivered. It can be strongly argued that this is exactly what is going on now. The only difference is that the content is being delivered on a one-size-fits-all instruction.

Most teachers do not have the tools of adoptive instruction presently. They are teaching the same way that they would in-person instruction. The only difference is now they are communicating that instruction through cameras and computers. That is like using a spreadsheet software application and taking out a sheet of paper and a pencil to add the columns instead of using the software application's power. We are using technology to teach but minus the innovation that would make this technology more useful. Until we start using adaptive technology for online learning, we are permanently damaging the education of millions of students.

Motivated students will continue to learn regardless of how the material is delivered. Those who are left behind have had problems before COVID -19 have a very challenging time in front of them. Some students admitted that they struggle with the different platforms used for instructions; they have difficulty paying attention because there are just too many distractions at home. To make this situation better, the entire education infrastructure has to be involved. Parents will also have to become more active in their child’s education. Many courses teach the best methods for delivering online instruction. All of those efforts are helping to make improvements. But most of the heavy lifting will be done by us as we adjust and mold ourselves to conform to the technology that is placed before us.

I believe person-to-person teaching is the best way to learn in most cases. But the pandemic has forced us into a new era by causing us to confront the inadequacies of not only the newest system of educational technology but also the inadequacies that we faced long before COVID-19. We will have to move on from repetitive perfunctory instruction for distance learning and somehow make learning fun by adding reflection to our instruction to help exercise the human element of thinking and learning. Now is the time to start making the structural, pedagogical, and mental adjustments necessary for the months and years ahead of us.

Humanist, educator, writer, photographer, and modern-day Luddite. http://thomasholtrussell.zenfolio.com/ My writing is a living organism.