Is online teaching really an answer?
It feels as if our worlds are starting to be turned upside down. Measures are being outlined to contain and delay Corvid 19. There is talk about restricting public events. World markets are quaking with worry at the potential fallout. Meanwhile, we are tasked to muddy on with daily life as much as we can, which includes providing uninterrupted education as far as is possible.
We are already seeing interesting debate about the ‘silver lining’ that comes with the move towards greater levels of remote working. As one interlocutor outlined, ‘it is about output rather than location of that delivery’. This is also a moment for the EdTech sphere to fly the flag – cloud infrastructure and online platforms mean that learning can continue for a significant number of students; hope of extended ‘snow days’ are out of the window. For those of us who form part of the one-on-one online mentoring world, tuition can similarly continue with little obstacle. Yet, the age-old question remains: can we really achieve the same results through online platforms as that daily achieved by inspiring educators in classrooms down and across the globe? No but yes; bear with me here.
I am sure that many of us can remember a lesson at school which really made an indelible mark on us (or, at least, I hope so!). Speaking from the other side of the table, I know myself how quickly you can deepen your connection with students when you are physically in the same room as them. Facial expressions tell oh so much about the extent to which everyone is still with you. But there is much we can’t do with ease that online platforms facilitate, not least going beyond facial expressions to try and determine how well each student has understood the material being delivered. Nevertheless, when it comes to going beyond content regurgitation, we have much work to do in EdTech to achieve at scale what is possible in a conventional classroom setting. I would argue, however, that we are making incremental steps towards this; there is hope.
Take critical literacy development for example, which lies at the heart of my teaching practice. At the heart of any course I deliver in person lies a motivation to develop the critical faculties of the students in front of me. At the heart of any online one-on-one tutoring sessions I lead lies the impulse to take my student on a critical literacy learning journey so that once they have flown their current education nest, they have deeper skills to transfer to their next context, whether this be further education or the world of work. I am surprised to hear myself say it, but working through cloud documents, being on email and hopping onto video calls has made it much easier to develop critical literacy in individual students than through face-to-face sessions. We can maximise our time and really focus in lessons as both parties are less concerned about travelling home or elsewhere. I can respond to queries intermittently to maintain continuity between sessions. I support students from all four corners of the globe. I might not have met them face-to-face, but the connection is no less strong and no less do I worry about their wellbeing. This brings me to the conclusion that we are pitching the debate incorrectly. It seems obvious to say and worth repeating (I still read so much to the contrary): it is not whether we deliver education online or offline, but rather *how* we deliver that education and for what ends. To make the parallel with the debate on remote working: it is the output rather than where it is delivered which matters most.
So, in answer to that question, it is absolutely possible to have far-reaching impact on students in an online setting. Our challenge now, one which motivates The Critical Literacy Project, is not just to transcend geographies for the benefit of an individual, but for the benefit of everyone; this should be our aim. And in the current bewildering context we find ourselves, we can take solace in the existence of online platforms that, if harnessed in the right way, can actually take students on extremely powerful educational journeys all from the comfort of their (and our) home.