Welcome to Cyberschool

While technology always has played a role in education , it went into hyperdrive with the pandemic-driven move to online learning. Up to this point, economic pressures and growing student numbers already were causing a panic in education. Schools were struggling to trim budgets as “accountability” scrutinized everyone. These extant conditions presented an upside to some of the changes that would occur.  Most dramatically, the shift to doing schoolwork at home eliminated shortfalls in classroom space and, at least temporarily, student housing as well. As the pandemic continued the share of higher education offered online jumped from 10 percent in 2019 to 33 percent a few years later.[i]  But as everyone now knows, so-called “distance learning” isn’t for everyone and doesn’t work for all kinds of material.  Research shows that one-size-fits-all character of mechanical course delivery disadvantages students of many kinds.

Online schooling isn’t as new as you might think. The idea of distance learning dates to vocational and self-improvement correspondence courses of the eighteenth century, which arose with improvements  in mail delivery systems. Often cited as an early example was a shorthand course offered by Caleb Phillips, advertised in a 1721 edition of Boston Gazette with claims that “students may by having several lessons sent weekly to them, be as perfectly instructed as those that live in Boston.”[ii] By the 1800s all manner of vocational skills were being taught by mail, as well hobbies like drawing and painting. The University of London became the first college to offer distance learning degrees in 1858. By the end of the century, learning by mail had become big business for institutions like the Pennsylvania-based International Correspondence Schools (ICS). In the decade between 1895 and 1905, ICS grew from 72,000 to 900,000 students signing up to learn technical and management skills.[iii] Much of this growth was due to the innovation of sending entire textbooks rather than single lessons, along with promotion by a large in-person sales team. Continue reading “Welcome to Cyberschool”

Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner

No one could have predicted the radical changes in education of the early 2020s. Besides making the once-obscure Zoom into a household name, the pandemic accelerated an already fast-moving takeover of everyday life by the internet. The economic consequences were profound, with revenues exploding for companies like Netflix and Amazon while brick-and-mortal retail outlets and restaurants disappeared by the thousands. Of course nothing about the upheaval was especially surprising in historical terms. Cataclysmic events like disasters and wars often leave places quite different than they were before, as systemic restraints give way to radical reorganization. Emergency measures accepted in the moment have a habit of leaving remnants in place, much as occurred with online learning. Not that this is always is a bad thing. Urgent situations can trigger remarkable innovation and creativity, seen in the hundreds of ways that educators found ways to keep instruction going. But just as often people get hurt in the rush, as short-term solutions make for long-term problems.

Seen in retrospect, the rapid transition to online learning certainly falls into this latter category, evidenced in the huge numbers of students who failed or dropped out of classes, with those affected overwhelmingly the historically underserved. Changes occurred and learning was disrupted. But the convenience and efficiencies of virtual classroom were too good to let go. “Online Learning is Here to Stay” read a feature in New York Times, citing a study from the Rand Corporation saying that 20 percent of schools were choosing to continue portions of their online offerings. “Families have come to prefer stand-alone virtual schools and districts are rushing to accommodate, but questions still linger.”[i] Questions indeed. Before the pandemic less than one percent of K-12 schooling took place online. Educational reasons notwithstanding, this also had to do with the function of school as childcare for working families. The idea of a twenty-fold increase in home learning raises the question of what parent demographics are driving this shift. Or more to the point, who has gained from the online shift and who lost out? Continue reading “Loneliness of the Long Distance Learner”

Turn-U-In : Treating Students as Suspects

It’s no secret that online learning has its problems, witnessed in the historic failure and drop-out rates resulting from thrown-together course overhauls in the early COVID months. Less widely reported has been another kind of failure owing to a loss faith in educational institutions and a widening trust gap between teachers and students.

Inherent school power inequities  have aggravated  antagonisms – now made even worse by a range of surveillance and security technologies. The distance in “distance learning” can create an atmosphere of alienation and distrust. When the in-person classroom is reduced to a screen image, teachers and students can seem more like abstractions than actual people.

This opens the door for all sorts of communication failures and misunderstandings, not to mention stereotyping and harm. The objectifying tendencies of media representations long have been associated distortions in the way individuals and groups view each other, whether in the marketing of products, sensationalizing news items, or spreading ideologies on social networks. When “Zoom school” does this, underlying beliefs and assumptions can overtake the reality of encounters, generating attitudes that destabilize the learning environment.

These problems have become especially evident in the panic about student dishonesty in online learning, as the absence of classroom proximity quickly escalated in into assumptions of cheating. Early in the 2020s a torrent of news reports warned of an “epidemic” of dishonesty in online learning, with some surveys showing over 90 percent educators believing cheating occurred more in distance education than in-person instruction.[i] New technologies often have stoked such fears, in this instance building on the distrust many faculty hold toward students, some of it racially inflected. [ii] Closer examination of the issue has revealed that much of the worry came from faculty with little direct knowledge of the digital classroom, online student behavior, and preventative techniques now commonly used.  Indeed more recent research has shown no significant differences between in-person and online academic integrity.[iii] Continue reading “Turn-U-In : Treating Students as Suspects”