Friday, September 17, 2021

E-learning fails our students & teachers


About 50 people marched in protest Wednesday outside the offices of Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland yesterday to protest the board’s decision last week to keep virtual learning in place through at least January, when the first semester ends, The Frederick News-Post reports.

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What the protesters, most of them parents of students in Frederick County schools, seem to want is something they wouldn’t ordinarily have to ask for: in-person instruction by teachers in our public schools.

But these are not ordinary times, of course, and how each district resumes in-person instruction is a decision in Maryland, as in just about every state, that has been left up to local boards of education. The state superintendent or governor can suggest and even take sides about the question, but ultimately, the matter comes down to each school board.

Stories being told of e-learning nightmares have made educators blink and even wince sometimes, especially when it comes to students with special needs. They themselves have struggled with teaching through a computer screen, using a platform that may be well suited to an accounting meeting or even a doctor’s appointment but has utterly failed when it comes to helping a high school student debate a government issue or teaching a kindergartner to read.

One of the protesters in Frederick described how her 7-year-old son threw his Chromebook on the ground. “The crying, the frustration—he just was not having it,” she was quoted as saying. “He could not focus on it. He wasn’t learning anything.”

She is now homeschooling him, for which she has had to give up her job, as four other kids continue their e-learning in other parts of the house.

This isn’t really an extreme example, either.

Hundreds of negative experiences are being widely reported and studied, where students and their teachers and families struggle with e-learning. Using technology like this to provide the entirety of the school experience—from the effectiveness of an online curriculum to the relationship building and more—is a classic example of using the wrong tool for a known purpose.

We don’t have much choice during the pandemic, as districts continue to weigh the risks of in-person school (catching Covid-19 and spreading it to others in the community) against the risks of e-learning (behavioral and mental issues; lack of motivation; suicidal ideation; increased rates of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse; neck, back, and eye strain; headaches; social isolation; and so on).

As with all matters concerning children’s health, an extra-conservative approach is probably the best way to start. Except that now we’re starting to accumulate mountains of evidence that the possibility that kids will catch Covid-19 and suffer grave health consequences from it may not be all that bad. In certain kids, whose families have an immune-compromised adult or who have a medical condition themselves that might add to the risk, exceptions are necessary.

But in general, this whole e-learning experiment, forced on us by a virus that we still don’t understand all that well, is not working for students or their parents, especially working parents. It’s not working for teachers, either.

In Washington County, just to the west of Frederick, “Teachers are juggling in-person learners, online learners, and in some cases learners who are not online or in person,” the Hagerstown Herald-Mail quoted teachers’ union president Neil Becker as saying. “Teachers are creating synchronous lessons and asynchronous lessons to keep students engaged. Self-directed planning time is hard to find.”

In other words, it’s hard for them to do both teaching and managing e-learning activities that are not supposed to be part of their job and something for which most received absolutely no training from any teacher education program.

He quoted comments from other educators he has heard around the district:

  • This pace and workload are not sustainable.
  • I am drowning in work.
  • This is totally overwhelming.
Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.


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