Online learning was a disaster for my generation
As the school year ends, students and teachers need to recommit to real classrooms
Now that the school year — one of the strangest ever — is nearly over, it’s time to think about what has happened to education during the pandemic.
By April last year Covid lockdowns had forced 1.6 billion children out of schools and universities worldwide. This was a cause for joy in some quarters. In May 2020, New York governor Andrew Cuomo questioned why physical classrooms still existed at all, and he announced that Bill Gates would help rethink education in the state. Across LinkedIn, posts proliferated claiming that a “long overdue” marriage between education and technology had finally arrived.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
It was notable that most of the people celebrating these changes were not those on the sharp end of them — students, or even teachers.
In the UK, the Government was quick to fund digital technologies in schools. By April 2020, it announced a plan to provide free technical training in Google and Microsoft education digital tools. More than 6,500 primary and secondary schools in England signed up. Since then, some 2.4 million new user accounts have been created for the two platforms.
For secondary school children, remote learning became an uncomfortable way of life. An A-Level student who began studying in September 2019 will have spent a quarter of their course learning from home. And now, during the so-called “pingdemic”, a further million students — over 14.4% of state-funded school children — have once again been confined to their homes in the last week alone.
As a Year 13 student, my personal experience of online learning leaves me convinced that it can’t replace real classrooms. Yes, we were able, just about, to continue our studies during the pandemic. But pupils in all age ranges struggled with the impact of the digital classroom. Many felt isolated. Many felt unable to communicate properly with their peers, or their teachers. Our school tried its best, yet many of us us felt inadequately supported.
So I was not surprised to read a report by ImpactEd that showed how damaging remote learning was last year. The report found significant challenges in three areas: student motivation, teacher workload and student wellbeing. In fact, only 34% of surveyed UK pupils had felt actively motivated during remote learning, with the majority “neutral or actively disinterested.”
I know this is exactly how I felt this last year, dealing with the constant threat of school closures, or working on a laptop at home. All in all, as the school year comes to an end, every effort needs to be made to ensure use of online learning is minimised. Young people have faced their own peculiar and heavy burdens during this pandemic. For those of us who are leaving school now, much has been lost that can’t ever be recovered.
One good thing to come out of online learning was that parents across America finally discovered how deeply ideological their children’s education had become.
Can’t imagine why there’s a push for this at all.
I mean it’s not like the tech giants would benefit at all from selling capacity, software and engineering to the Western world’s heavily funded education systems. Not in their interests I am certain!
Nor would all that school real estate across the countries, not least in our crowded cities look attractive to investors and developers. Nope.
And our education systems’ organisations? No they wouldn’t look to save money by reducing teaching numbers, selling land and property in the name of “efficiencies”.
Really good article calling it for what it is. Crucially it’s the students’ and teachers who don’t seem to be being consulted in this.
I say this as I listen to the dulcet tones of an excavator tearing down what used to be a special needs school, ready to convert it into flats.
Teacher Unions were the biggest force in closing the schools.
I read my kids’ school’s welcome pack for next year and one third of their teachers are “special educational needs” teachers. I was astounded. We had a tea time discussion on whether it is best for some kids to be in special schools. My kids are nice kids and happy to be friends with (some) of the challenging kids – but they are fed up with the disruptive behaviour (even though they understand the cause) as it is detrimental to their learning. Their must be a better way to do this.
autocorrect used the wrong “there” but for some reason I am unable to correct it.
I can very much relate to all this, but from a teacher’s side.
I heard from one LA post that 25% of the students in their part never even logged into the system and basically just disappeared from the education completely. My guess is some study in the future would find the life time loss of income for those students is hugely reduced by the reduction in their employability and will be very significant to society – it is not likely they will ever make it up, but exceedingly likely this getting so behind will act as a anchor on the remaining years of school ahead. ‘Under-employability’, and ‘un-employable’ are the likely outcome for millions by this insane locking of schools. (and led by the teaching unions, who must hate the children they are supposed to be educating.)
Agree with everything you say, but I am not sure it is hatred. It’s just political games to my mind. They are motivated by ambition and socialist ideology. They probably have not been in a classroom for years and weren’t interested in teaching even then. The children and their members simply don’t enter the picture.
Let me offer a somewhat heretical counter-stance. I absolutely accept that children and teens need the socialisation that school provides until around the end of A-levels. But …
I have heard teachers and lecturers complain for over a year that teaching remotely is ‘not the same’. Ok, but no one is managing to articulate exactly what they are missing out, that is so critical. If it is the technology that is falling short, then say so in detailed terms – but I haven’t heard complaints along those lines.
The dissatisfaction with both remote teaching and learning is typically expressed in the terms described here – and there are aspects of the objections I find incongruous. These are generations already so comfortable with socialising on computing devices, that they can type faster on a phone single handed (and not even using all the fingers), than I can on a full size keyboard after four decades of coding. They are already used to maintaining multiple streams and managing information flows. You would think they would take to remote learning like ducks to water. So what exactly is the seemingly impossible to articulate ‘missing piece’?
I suspect there are several missing pieces.
For most kids, and as you note, socialization is important and I think they miss contact with their friends.
For younger kids I think focus is the problem. They might be entirely comfortable navigating the internet but their ability to stay on task, especially an educational task they don’t find particularly interesting, is limited.
For the older students, such as the author of this article, I think the subject matter they’re studying is difficult and they cannot explore challenging subject matter (such as math) with teachers as effectively on line as in person. The author studied for her A levels this past year. Having lived in the UK I know they are roughly equivalent to Advanced Placement courses in the US system. Those are tough courses, especially in the sciences, and I suspect one-on-one interaction with teachers is very helpful.
Of course, we all sometimes find it difficult to articulate what’s truly bothering us. I suspect many of these complaints are, ultimately, motivated by kids who are absolutely sick of being stuck at home for such a long time. Just my 2 cents.
Without the adults the boys turned to Lord of the Flies, and I would guess that the job of the teacher is to keep this from happening, wile if all the youth were alone at home doing school on – line it would mean thousands of individual Lord of the Flies.
School is 90% Daycare, 10% learning. Without physically being at school the youth would not be monitored, and that is not good.
If you remember ‘Beavis and But head’, the movie was a modern take on the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, but instead of being raised by wolves, and so becoming brave, strong, and steady, B&B are raised by MTV, sitting at home alone on the dirty sofa with that on 24 hours a day – and what they turn into is an excellent cautionary tale….
And that is what would become of youth raised by a computer monitor.
Excellent article! I have also heard from lecturers how much they hate providing lectures into the ether with no idea who is there or what they are thinking or feeling about the content. Speaking from the point of view of online exercise classes throughout. It has been great to access classes that I would never ordinarily have been able to access. The teacher is also superb and highly motivating. Despite this and despite having paid to be there, sometimes I am motivated and participate fully and sometimes I am not and basically do nothing whether it is daydreaming in the middle of an instruction or just deciding it is all too hard and doing nothing. I have absolutely no doubt online learning is a disaster for all but the highly motivated, intellectually / emotionally mature children.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe