The Myth of Online Learning

Our schools have been closed for over a fortnight now, and we, like families all over the world, are confined to our homes. It’s been a lovely (mostly) time to watch my three young boys whiling away the hours. As I type one of them is on his iPad, making an animated movie, another on the piano, hammering away something tuneless, and the youngest (four) is putting a load of washing on – we all need an obsession. As the day meanders on they will laugh, draw, explore, fight, eat, hide, sulk, run, bounce back from dark moods, read, ask what’s for dinner (ten or twenty times each), argue passionately over small nothings and watch movies. They are doing what children naturally do, given the time and space and support. They’re learning about their world. It’s sort of glorious.

Next week ‘schools’ are back, only the online version, announced with a certain level of pride from the Minister of Education yesterday. What this means, in essence, is that the older of my two children will be pestered with tasks designed to both make the teaching community feel useful, and interfere with my children’s learning. Tasks that will add friction to what is already a difficult time for parents, and which will add precisely nothing to the learning trajectory of our children. It will demonstrate conclusively, for those still in any doubt, that online learning is kind of a waste of time.

Thing is, all the things I most need schools to do, they can’t do for me in an online environment. The first, and most crucial service a school provides is babysitting. It is the existence of schools that allow parents the space to be adults in the world. To work, to hold grown up conversations, or just to have a few moments of peace in the day.   In other times this would feel like cynicism, but we’re starting to understand it now, right? It’s a key and worthy part of our social fabric, this keeping of children safe in such a cheap and efficient manner. And you can’t do that online.

Next thing you need schools for is the context in which social skills can be developed. The really difficult things to learn like being patient when there are lots of other people who need attending to, or dealing with betrayals and disappointments, or sucking it up and hiding your mood from your peers, developing the discipline to shut up and get on with the task at hand, reading the moods of others, learning to listen, express your opinion respectfully, apologise and make things better when you screw up; all these things are well learned in the school environment – for teachers and students both. None of them can be adequately learned online, and yet can we think of anything more important to learn?

The third reason you’ll have anticipated, for it’s all very well to speak of the richness of learning in the home environment but that’s a very middle class luxury – dear God I’ve already mentioned a piano, an iPad and a front loading washing machine. But, more than that, these are kids not exposed to violence,  overcrowding, drug addiction or instability. This is the third great pillar of state provided education, a small but important contribution in the battle against inequality. Schools, at their best, provide for some of our students the only safe and stable environment they know, the only possibility of their background stress ever getting low enough for meaningful learning to occur. And for that you need the safe space to exist. Online can’t get that done either.

Further down the list, we find the academic virtues. Learning to write essays, or computer code, or manipulate algebraic expressions. Skills that for the great majority are of marginal value at best, but which for a small portion of the population (and for society in general) are absolutely crucial. We need epidemiologists and we need vaccine creators, people with highly advanced abstract thinking skills who will go on to be our leaders, our inventors and our intellectuals. Always will, and when education gets that right, it’s glorious. And this part we can contribute to online, although there will never be a substitute for meeting the mentor who inspires you, fuels your love for the subject. Turns out though, we also really need truck drivers, supermarket shelf stackers and farmers (and don’t really need merchant bankers, corporate lawyers, boards of directors,  market researchers or consultants). Hell, turns out we really need Netflix too. But most of the work that comes through the wifi over the next few weeks is going to be crashingly irrelevant for most of the students receiving it. And an awful lot of it will exist to serve not the needs of the students, but the needs of the teachers and administrators. So, you know, nothing changes.

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