Opinionista Sara Black 11 May 2020

The problem with Stephen Grootes’ views about online learning

Technology can enhance and enrich pedagogy. But online learning, especially non-contact online learning, loses many of the critical acts and responses of the teacher as mediator of knowledge and understanding: it throttles pedagogical practice.

Recently, journalist and author Naomi Klein noted the wisdom in Milton Friedman’s observation that “only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” As Klein quite rightly stated: we need to have good ideas lying around in these moments, otherwise really bad ones might take hold. And there are some rather bad ideas about education being touted by people, many of whom really are not informed on the matter.

The original title of this article was “Everyone’s a schooling expert now”. But I removed the ‘now’. Because what Stephen Grootes (and others) have been doing recently when offering their analyses of what to do about interrupted schooling during the Covid-19 pandemic is not a new phenomenon. People seem to think because they have an education that they know how to give one. Such conflation denigrates the social status of teachers (on whom we all heavily depend) and the profession of teaching, which does actually require specific expertise.

This particular article wants to address the problems in Grootes’ specific analysis entitled “Online learning to the rescue”, bearing in mind the observation above. To clarify: my objection is with the argument offered, not the author, whose political analyses are insightful and informed. Unfortunately, his piece about online learning suffers three serious flaws, namely:

  1. it is ahistorical, ignoring prior attempts at such efforts and their outcomes, as well as an enormous canon of research on why existing education systems are not effecting meaningful teaching and learning;
  2. it is acontextual, ignoring the long-standing material realities that inhibit equal participation in the online learning for the vast majority of students, and is reductive of the rich complexity of physical schooling environments;
  3. and, perhaps most importantly, it is un-pedagogic, with no appreciation for the expertise and skill involved in constructing and mediating learning moments across diverse needs and student responses.

At this point, it is useful to place on the table an important distinction offered by my colleague at the UCT School of Education, Associate Professor Joanne Hardman, between teaching with technology and teaching through technology. Technology as an object to utilise in the classroom — whether it be exciting YouTube videos, useful devices for students to explore visualisations, or to conduct polls for checking students’ understanding — offers teachers a rich set of resources and devices to construct engaging learning moments. It also offers unprecedented options for students who experience barriers to learning, whether these be physical or psycho-social (e.g. hearing impaired students, or those with forms of autism).

Technology eases schooling administration and can supplement contact classes incredibly well.

But teaching through technology is a different kettle of fish entirely. Online teaching and learning can range from only distance/correspondence (with no real-time interaction with a teacher), to simply badly mirroring a classroom (with only live, contact classes). None of the proponents of going online are really suggesting the latter, recognising it is unscalable and a poor cousin of face-to-face interactions, lacking all the supposed benefits of releasing learning from the bonds of specific spaces and times.

Normally, the ideal solution touted is seen as somewhere between total correspondence (also called distance learning), to a blend of periodic contact and correspondence (termed “blended learning”). While teachers and university lecturers right now are wrestling with what online can do while trying to make the best of a difficult situation, this is very different from suggesting that contact classes be replaced with online learning as Grootes suggests. Let’s unpack the three critiques of the suggestion more carefully.

Ahistorical

Proponents of the idea of going totally online have amnesia: this is not the first time such ideas have been suggested. Lack of access to material conditions also inhibited the use of radio and TV for education during prior pandemics (e.g. polio in the 1930s), along with the concerns of a lack of mediation, given that parents need to be at work or are simply unable to support.

In addition, the idea that online learning can somehow repair what’s not working in our schools also ignores decades of research about what inhibits learning, especially for the most marginalised. As French sociologist of education Pierre Bourdieu observed, schools cannot make up for the intergenerational transmission of advantage that originate in the home, although they make the most difference for those whose homes are the most vulnerable. Moving learning activity to the home clearly doesn’t fix that problem, but actually exacerbates it.

Grootes’ analysis also ignores the negative consequences of platooning, or shift teaching (and its various forms: “year-round schooling”; “schools-within-schools”; “multi-track schools” etc.). Tried in multiple contexts (including South Africa), as a way of stretching limited space to serve more people, these arrangements not only result in intensified teachers’ work (burnout is already a problem); it also totally disrupts families’ rhythms, with parents unable to coordinate their work schedules and those of their children.

Acontextual

While past events and research show clearly the concerns and limitations of online learning by correspondence/blended or partial contact, it doesn’t take much to see these concerns still apply today.

The barriers to meaningful learning online are more than just about “access to data”. Appropriate spaces at home, access to material devices (and the means to keep them safe, charged and upgraded with latest software), digital literacies, lack of distractions, available adults able to mediate and support, as well as appropriate materials in languages that the student can read and understand … these are all massive obstacles to the vast majority of South African children moving to online learning.

We can’t even produce print textbooks in indigenous languages, and teachers constantly have to translanguage in the classroom to assist students to learn from English sources when their English proficiency is still inadequate for the task (especially in the rural areas, where English — the language of the internet — is effectively a foreign language). Now imagine that with a child/teenager living with their grandmother, schooling from home with an outdated tablet in Qoboqobo.

[Never mind the forms of self-regulation required to stay on task without these barriers. Even in my own classroom of English-speaking middle-class children when I taught in the UK, keeping my students on board when we hit the computer room was unbelievably hard. Teachers don’t just transmit curriculum; they also support learning-compatible behaviours. And we haven’t even scratched the surface of the potential health effects of being on and near devices all day, for adults or children.]

Correspondence and distance learning has often been touted as a cost-saving approach to education for ages (and note: most cost-saving approaches in education exacerbate inequality). But correspondence hasn’t been taken up at scale for many reasons. One of these is that it doesn’t offer the important relationship functions that brick-and-mortar schools do — peer-to-peer and student-teacher relationships, as well as child oversight functions (whether schools should be glorified babysitting services is questionable, but the truth is, they are).

Everyone struggling under this lockdown can feel that the connections they have with colleagues and friends via WhatsApp and Zoom is just not the same. We are social creatures and need to be together.

Correspondence is also mostly used for adults, for reasons already mentioned. Trumpeting correspondence education success stories belies its inefficacy at scale, or its appropriacy for minors. Grootes cites Pius Langa and Dikgang Moseneke (who studied while on Robben Island), as two successful examples of correspondence learning. In the former case, it is clear that “hitting the books” after working in the T-shirt factory was incredibly hard and required Herculean discipline; for the latter — hard as imprisonment is — it offers benefits for study that the average poor household does not, most notably structured time free from distraction.

The exceptionalism of both cases proves the rule: this is not a solution for the majority. I’m not questioning whether correspondence options — digital or otherwise — should be available for those who need them. But correspondence is not a scalable solution that will effect meaningful teaching and learning for the majority.

Physical schools also provide opportunities for assistance for young students who are not having their basic needs met. This has become obvious in the crisis regarding feeding schemes during lockdown. In the township high school where I taught, my colleagues and I would be the ones who got students’ hearing and vision tested, or called the local clinic for the biannual deworming visit. Teachers also are often the first to notice forms of child abuse, being the adults who most often see children outside the home.

All this is lost when moving online. The point is: assuming that all schools are inert, rational places to “pick up knowledge” like the weekly shopping misses the important social functions that schools offer, especially for those whose homes cannot.

Unpedagogical

By far the most serious oversight by those who propose technology as a quick fix for education problems is that of pedagogy. This is unsurprising, given that pedagogy is the essence of teaching expertise, and hence non-experts are often ignorant of it.

Teaching is not closed, cold transmission. It is an emergent event, where students do the unpredictable, where learning occurs as a relational effect between student and teacher, and sometimes student and student. As a teacher, I watch over my room, noticing who is struggling (not by them asking for help, but often by their body language or facial expression); I diagnose their misunderstandings (“ah, he thinks division is commutative… I’ve got a technique to address that!”); I read their moods (“are you alright? What’s up?”), I create — within my means — a space that makes them feel safe and comfortable so they’re more likely to learn; I place them together to enhance each other, and facilitate group discussions where they mediate each other’s understanding; I hold long uncomfortable silences that goad my charges into filling the void by stepping up and taking a risk; I notice their words; I unpack common misconceptions on the whiteboard… I create a space of learning.

A much-loved lesson plan goes out the window when I realise that this moment I’ve constructed is not producing learning. Or an event occurs which precipitates a critical discussion, whether it’s the arbitrary algorithmic ambiguity that make Casios produce a different answer to Sharp calculators, or something happens outside the classroom window, or in the community. I also teach the hidden curriculum — how to be, and how to be with each other.

Technology can enhance and enrich pedagogy. But online learning, especially non-contact online learning, loses many of these critical acts and responses of the teacher as mediator of knowledge and understanding: it throttles pedagogical practice.

The recurrent theme in teacher training and support is simple: effective teaching and learning is about relationships. Personal, professional, knowledge-rich, expertise-informed relationships between pedagogue and student. It is, at its core, social. In a prior life, when I worked as a software engineer, I saw how much code is wasted because the nature of the social problems which they were supposed to “fix” was poorly understood. That is: technology doesn’t fix social problems — people do. But deployed unreflectively, technology can reify — or even enhance — social differences and inequalities, locking into algorithms very human decisions that are as biased as the social systems they automate.

This is not to say that there is nothing of value in online learning, as a form of distance/correspondence or blended learning. Far from it. Rather, it is not a substitute for face-to-face teaching and learning moments that is appropriate for the vast majority of our students.

Then again, anyone who is a professional teaching and learning expert could tell you that. DM

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