Technology is not the Panacea to our Educational Woes
Though public education has remained alarmingly the same for the last 150 years, technology has started to transform the outdated educational system as we know it. Add a pandemic on top of that, and we may have found the magic concoction for the complete structural makeover the public school system has needed for quite some time. However, despite the swift nature in which technology has been adopted into the educational system due to COVID-19, we should be wary of assuming it can replace entirely the way we educate.
First, it’s important to acknowledge that if a pandemic happened even as recently as 10 years ago and forced all schools to shut down for a quarter of the school year, we would have been in no position to continue to teach from a distance as effectively — if at all. Thanks to a multitude of technological advances (e.g. video conferencing and classroom management platforms, online assessments, screencasting software, etc.) and the fact that most schools — even low income ones like mine — have enough personal computers for each student to check one out, we accomplished a seemingly impossible feat.
Implementing technology into our educational system definitely has some advantages. COVID-19 has forced many teachers like myself to rely exclusively on technology, and the outcomes have varied. I personally used all the above technologies for high school math. For example, I used Screencastify to record my own video lessons. Using a stylus on a touchscreen computer, I would write out the notes and examples, while explaining, and the screen would even include a little embedded “selfie” video of me in the corner to give a personal touch. I was able to organize all the videos, instructions, materials, and assignments through the learning management system, Google Classroom. Everything was organized by weeks, and I would schedule each upcoming week of curriculum to post the Saturday before. That way, students could complete the work at their own pace, and everything would be due on Friday. I also utilized Zoom to offer optional tutoring hours twice a week for each class if students needed extra support. Overall, it was a positive experience for me, and I think for the students, too, given the constraints we were under. However, despite the success these technologies offered, they paled in comparison to in-person education.
A widely-held philosophy behind teaching math is that the value derived in learning math helps one to creatively problem solve as well as learn to explain and critique logical reasoning. It goes without saying that math also teaches us how to develop perseverance and attention to detail. Contrary to the popular belief that math taught in high school is not used often in everyday life, it’s the skills behind the equations and word problems that matter and that are utilized nearly daily. These essential skills, arguably, are best learned in a classroom setting because it requires team-work and a social experience, both of which are lost when learning from a distance. While Zoom has the capability to create “breakout rooms” where students could potentially work in a small group on a specific problem, it’s nowhere near as effective. For one, it’s a lot more difficult for the teacher to monitor each group, and provide targeted feedback in a quick and efficient way. Yes, I could pop into each breakout room to check in, but there is nothing like walking around the classroom and being able to hear 6-8 conversations all at once. On a different note, groups usually create posters with their creative solutions and then share with the class. There is a tactile and social element to creating something together that is just not fully satisfied online. Sure, students could create a Google Slides presentation, for example, and then share their screen through Zoom to present. And maybe education has room for that model as a complement! But the in-person collaboration would be sorely missed if we went there entirely and, arguably, would hinder students from fully grasping all that math has to offer.
Not only does a fully online math program take away the necessary social elements and skills derived from a classroom setting, it also complicates one’s ability to learn perseverance, or as Carol Dweck coined it, a growth mindset. Students are often divided into two camps by time they enter high school. You have the “math-people” group and the” not math-people” group. These divisions are mostly dependent on the success they experienced with math in prior classes. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that many students struggle to accept a growth mindset around math. Oftentimes, my job feels less like teaching math and more like teaching students that they can learn math. This requires a nuanced relationship with a strong foundation of trust that is very tough to foster through a computer lesson. This is not to say it would be impossible to do so, but we would be remiss to minimize the positive effects of an in-person classroom community.
Overall, it would be ideal to leverage the benefits of online learning, which gives students a more personalized learning experience, and an ability to work at their own pace, and balance those with the benefits of the social and human connection found by being physically together. We should be wary of adopting a model that argues for a complete online learning experience without first taking into account the challenges presented without the social and human component. I believe COVID-19 is transforming the way we educate students and will have permanent changes to our educational system. My hope is that these changes would be incremental and would ultimately work to serve the needs of our students in an ever changing world.