Online or out-of-line
It was one of those re-inventing-the-wheel sessions. Neither I nor my fellow professors at the college, where I taught journalism from 1999 to 2017, sensed we were having problems getting through to our students at that moment. Nevertheless, college decision-makers called a meeting for some PD (professional development) training, this particular day. They said they had great news!
“We’re going to make teaching easier for you,” the experts informed us that day. “Online teaching is the new wave in education.”
I think I turned to one of my colleagues and whispered in Doubting-Thomas fashion, “It may just be the wave that wipes us all out, or at least leaves us sputtering for our lives.”
Barris sarcasm aside, the concept of acclimatizing Ontario students to learning via online, as opposed to in the classroom, has been nibbling at the edges of traditional teaching since the birth of the internet. And while the jury is still out as to its bottom-line efficacy, e-learning has now become a major sticking point in the current negotiations between the provincial government and (in particular) high school teachers attempting to resolve the impasse. On Wednesday, in a series of rotating walkouts, instructors at Uxbridge Secondary School, took to the picket lines. Among other things, teachers I’ve listened to consider Ontario online courses – some 130 of them – a ploy for downsizing teaching staff and cutting education budgets.
Ploy nor not, here are some of the pros and cons of plans to have high-school students taught via online courses. It is probably fair to say that the price tag for wider internet access and education online is smaller than the wages and benefits boards pay their teachers. And certain students – English as a second language students, those traumatized by the transition from elementary to secondary school, or perhaps those with learning disabilities – requiring more time to learn, may well respond favourably to courses they can download, explore and digest at their own pace.
One stumbling block in this whole e-learning scenario, I was startled to learn as an instructor, is that the generation that grew up with smart phones nearly umbilically attached, is largely intimidated by information technology; 21st century students love their selfies, but they fear the internet. In a class of first-year journalism students, for example, I was baffled that most didn’t know how to find a postal code online, nor a government department nor even a utility office. Even worse, when they did arrive at a destination online, most considered what it said as the gospel truth!
As I see it, and I readily admit that my teaching experience is limited to 18 years in a college classroom, the problems with e-learning are the problems. In other words, what happens when students stumble on a foundational concept, lose their way navigating a sequence, or ultimately tune out in frustration? To whom do students turn when they fail to understand? In the old “Father Knows Best” days, parents, pals and siblings often filled the gap. Today, multi-tasking moms and dads can hardly keep up, and often ESL students have ESL parents. Neither the internet nor the home computer gives a damn when students have difficulty. Teachers do.
When those PD experts arrived with their “great news” all those years ago, I listened patiently to their pitch. I made some notes and wrote down a few questions that occurred to me. When I asked the e-learning gurus which students could benefit the most from e-learning away from the classroom, they said those with part-time jobs, or those with certain disabilities. “OK,” I said, “how does the internet course deal with a student experiencing a panic attack? Or a breakup with his/her partner? Or an abusive relative?” Or perhaps even more relevant, “How does the computer answer a student who asks, ‘Why do I need this course anyway?’”
I suggested, in no uncertain terms, that only humans who’ve been trained to teach can cope with human learners. Or, to quote an English prof, whose essay on e-learning I once read. “You don’t know what or how to teach until you see the whites of their eyes!”
But I’m also bothered by a few more insidious aspects of e-learning. My own experience with online courses revealed a very black-and-white world of problems posed and a limited scope of solutions offered. In other words, yes, there’s only one answer to one-plus-one, but what if the student needs to know what post-traumatic stress disorder looks like? Or who’s the victim and who’s the perpetrator in a Middle East territorial dispute? Or what causes a work stoppage, a lockout or a strike? Nothing frustrates an educator more than students who all believe the same thing. The beauty of learning is the realization that there is no one right answer, but a wide variety of truths. That’s what face-to-face education instils. That’s why interaction among teachers and learners is beneficial.
It paints a truer picture of the world.
For more Barris Beat columns, go to www.tedbarris.com