Distance learning stinks

By TIM KALICH GREENWOOD COMMONWEALTH,

Dr. Carey Wright, the state superintendent of education, calls her plan to gear up for continued distance learning in the fall a “life-changing opportunity for the children of Mississippi.”

It’s also an opportunity to blow a whole lot of money.

If schools are still closed in the fall due to the coronavirus pandemic, the results need to be better than the past couple of months, which were a wasted quarter of learning for most students not just in Mississippi but around the country.

Sure, some students, teachers and parents did their best to make the most of a bad situation, but for many it was an extended summer break with only a fraction of material being taught compared to what would have been covered if schools had not been closed.

There was not much accountability for students or teachers, as state tests were cancelled and most students passed on to the next grade regardless of how much or how little they did during distance learning. The attitude was that since some students and schools were handicapped with a lack of technology or expertise in using it, lack of participation and effort shouldn’t be held against any students.

Wright’s answer is to spend $450 million over the next three years trying to provide every public school student with a computer and broadband access, while trying to improve the quality of instruction delivered through distance learning. The first flaw with this argument is that it is taking a long-term approach to a short-term problem.

This pandemic is not going to last forever. The worst-case scenario would be keeping schools closed until a vaccine is developed, which could be as soon as the end of this year but almost certainly within the next 12 to 15 months. Even as researchers work feverishly toward a vaccine, the public will be naturally building up immunity, and reliable antibody tests will be developed that will show who is at risk and who is not. The main reason schools were closed is not because the children were in serious danger from COVID-19 — so far in Mississippi, individuals under the age of 18 have accounted for less than 5% of the cases and not a single death — but that they would infect vulnerable adults at home or at school. As we make progress toward identifying who has already been benignly exposed to the disease, officials and parents will get more comfortable about opening schools back up. It could be as soon as this fall, but probably no later than next spring.

In addition, Wright and others who have a vision about what distance learning can become are ignoring what experience has already shown.

It is a mediocre substitute for the real thing, and for a multitude of reasons.

For younger grades, it’s nearly impossible for teachers to connect with kids for very long over the internet. So, what happens is teachers provide the materials but parents are expected to do most of the teaching. That doesn’t work out too well, since parents may not be academically equipped to do it, may not have the patience or the right chemistry with their child to do it, or they may have other children to care for plus a job that may or may not have them working from home. For a short time, parents were willing to shoulder the load, but they are going to get tired of it, if they haven’t already.

For older grades, in which the students may be able to operate more independently, distance learning is wide open to cheating. It also tends to be less rigorous, as universities, which have been in the online teaching business for a while, have demonstrated.

Wright has this idea that computer and internet technology could also be used to address the teacher shortage by enabling highly qualified teachers to teach students in different parts of the state remotely. But this has already been tried, beaming in instruction via satellite in hard-to-fill subject areas, such as the sciences and foreign languages. It doesn’t work. The students don’t mesh with the remote teachers, the students lose interest, the technology is buggy, teachers get frustrated and little if anything gets learned.

There is admittedly a technology gap in Mississippi caused by the lack of universal broadband access, with an estimated third of the state still creeping along with slow connections. If the Mississippi Legislature wants to use a big chunk of the $1.25 billion it received in COVID-19 relief funds to address that gap, go for it, but do it not just for schoolkids but for businesses and everyone else in these areas.

After that, though, let families buy their own computers.

When electricity was being expanded to thinly populated rural areas in the 1930s with  the help of government subsidies, the beneficiaries were provided with the power, but not with the lamps, washing machines or refrigerators that used the electricity. Why should computers be any different?

Besides. most students have smartphones that they prefer to use when accessing the internet. If they want a larger screen and they can’t afford new, there’s a glut of used, low-priced equipment out there.

When schools start furnishing kids with laptops or tablets to take home, they last a while, but then they wind up broken or lost or outdated. Or they become a classroom distraction with students watching videos or chatting on social media and not paying attention to the teacher. Soon the teachers stop using them except as babysitters.

As with most of the ideas of education “visionaries,” their technological innovations sound good in theory but they don’t work in practice.

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