The shift to online learning as a result of coronavirus has caused many organizations to re-evaluate their validity and effectiveness in their industry; the education sector is no exception. In the wave of coronavirus and online learning, Governor of New York state, Andrew Cuomo recently announced his plan to team up with The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reimagine education. His vision is to weave more technology into schools’ by and large brick-and-mortar structures.
As the notion of social distancing persists throughout the country, discussions regarding the technological state of our conventional education structure were imminent. Cuomo decided to step ahead of the curve to “build our systems back better than they were before” (according to NY.gov) The final issue Cuomo hopes to address comes in the form of a question:
Given ongoing socially distancing rules, how can we deploy classroom technology, like immersive cloud virtual classrooms learning, to recreate larger class or lecture hall environments in different locations?
After his announcement, many stepped out to publicly disagree with Governor Cuomo. According to The City of New York Central, the New York State United Teacher replied to Cuomo stating, “Remote learning, in any form, will never replace the important personal connection between teachers and their students.” One school staff member even took to the internet to write an open letter to Governor Cuomo. She ends her response with, “We are so much more than four walls. We are so much more than the curriculum we deliver. That is something you will never be able to reimagine.”
The vehement responses Cuomo received—and continues to receive from educators—poses interesting questions. What are the benefits of face-to-face learning? Why do we continue to fight so passionately to maintain an antiquated form of learning? As the world continues to change and technology improves, wouldn’t it make sense for virtual classrooms to supplant the need for brick-and-mortar institutions?
Ed Week’s article How Effective Is Online Learning? What the Research Does and Doesn’t Tell Us cites pivotal studies that compare the disparities between online classes and regular classes. In particular, they discuss one University of Chicago and American Institute for Research study in which students were assigned either an online or in-person course to make up Algebra I. Not only did online students perform worse than students in the in-person model, they reported that the class was harder. The article hypothesizes that the relative lack of social pressures and an increased number of distractions make it easy for students to drop off. Without a teacher in the room with them, students just simply don’t have the same motivations to succeed.
There is something more powerful about the in-person experience that often cannot be quantified. And it begins with motivation. According to The Effect of Student-Teacher Relationships on the Academic Engagement of Students, students who feel welcomed and wanted in a classroom are more likely to be motivated to work hard in their classes. In fact, students need emotional involvement from their teachers to maintain students’ interest and participation. Once they feel that support, their work and achievements reflect it for years to come. Why Strong Teacher Relationships Lead to Student Engagement and a Better School Environment finds that positive student-teacher relationships help students develop “self-regulation, particularly autonomy and self-determination.” Positive relationships remain as the gift that keeps giving as students learn important life skills while earning good grades along the way.
And students do face adversity. Many times, the only positive adult in a students’ life is their teacher. As such, the teacher-student relationship becomes far more
personal and important to a student’s overall well-being. CNN, among a host of other new sites, have recently published articles about the decline in child abuse reports. And while this news should be good, it is a direct result of students’ inability to leave their toxic homes. CNN reports, “Teachers, coaches and other adults who interact with children and are legally required to report signs of abuse can’t always see red flags over Zoom or other remote connections — if they’re able to get in touch with at-risk kids at all.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that educators are often the most common person in a child’s life to report cases of abuse, neglect, or psychological maltreatment.
On average, students spend 1,000 hours a year at school with a teacher. It is impossible for teachers to remain completely oblivious about the children occupying space in their classroom and vice versa. So, no, it is unlikely we will be able to successfully move to a completely online learning platform. Students need a hug, high-five, an educator who notices the slightest change in mood—modalities virtual learning cannot offer. And while technology can transform a classroom, it isn’t always best for transforming student-teacher relations. These are vital to students’ success and motivation to push themselves. These relationships maintain academic achievement, boost social skills, and keep students safe. So yes, virtual learning is possible; but it isn’t what’s best. Our students need their relationship with their teachers. Without it, we lose the very glue to our school system.