Exactly fifty years ago, the spring of my sophomore year in college dissolved in a cloud of tear gas. No one was killed on my campus or on the campus of the college at whose golf course I was about to start my summer job mowing greens and raking sand traps, but the times were fraught with talk of revolution and a deep, deep distrust of the federal government and its executive leadership.
For thousands of students across the country today—and not just at colleges—the spring of 2020 is a huge unknown, just another part of the angst and (so far) low-grade panic that marks our era. On little or even no notice, educational institutions are closing down for an indefinite period, sending students and teachers off to work at home until the COVID-19 situation resolves itself into something that can be predicted and contained.
Much of the talk is about “online learning.” As anyone who has ever taken or attempted to teach a fully online class knows, designing online learning experiences that work—that is, that engage students and achieve their defined learning goals—is really challenging, requiring a knowledge not just of the technology (that’s nothing!) involved but also of an array of pedagogical strategies. For those with the inclination to do this work, training and guidance are the norm as they climb a learning curve that is often unexpectedly steep.
The COVID-19 crisis requires something different, although in the long term it may help us see new pathways.
Once upon a time, before there were online schools as we know them and before Clayton Christensen et al. promised us disrupted classrooms, there were parts of the world where far-flung students had to be taught but where brick-and-mortar schools were impracticable. Thus was born, in the outback of Australia and in the far north of Alaska, DISTANCE LEARNING.
Using radios at first and then computers, distance-learning students in these places were taught using the conventional pedagogies of the day. A discussion might take place over two-way radio or typed through radio-enabled teletypes and later modems. The technology was the challenge, and what could be taught was taught as well as possible.
In 2020 distance learning is still a viable option, especially for schools forced to change up their instructional delivery methods overnight. While online learning occupies its own spot in the educational ecosphere, distance learning is more like a continuation of normal classroom practice within the constraints of technologies that are both familiar (a school’s learning management system, say, or Google Drive) and far more powerful than what was available in Australia in 1962 or Alaska in 1992. New technologies for conferencing and document-sharing are relatively familiar, and so the transition from a class discussion in Room 217 to a Hangout or a Zoom is not such a challenge.
By leaping toward “online learning,” transforming every course into a freestanding and self-contained entity, schools that are already in a crisis mode (and closing a campus and going virtual can only be described as a crisis, even if it’s a crisis that’s under control) are very likely overcomplicating a situation that is stress-inducing enough for teachers, students, and families. This overcomplication can seriously impede the efficacy of the efforts being undertaken.
Thinking in a DISTANCE LEARNING frame can help keep things simple in all kinds of ways, and lowering expectations to encompass the possible does not mean diminishing the nature and the value of students’ educational experience. Here are a few things to think about, at least at the middle and high school levels:
I imagine that some of my professors in 1970 saw The Strike as a serious impediment to their students’ learning. What I learned then, and what we must all set as our goal now, is that organized, generous, and creative thinking can meet any crisis. If Sociology 34b was not all that it might have been for me, a far greater lesson about preparedness and flexibility has stayed with me for a half-century. COVID-19 is the crisis of our time, and we can and will meet it and get through it.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)