Much has been achieved, teachers have been thanked, parents have proved their mettle as teaching assistants and students have pushed through learning how a shift in paradigm is lived. No one claims to be happy with this new scenario, though I find it hard to believe that some people are not relieved at being saved the commute to school, and that many are relieved at being saved the tiffin-waterbottle-bus rush that was almost a celebration of disorganised, rushed, hyper lives. On the other hand, the school as child carer – a safe space to send the kids – has been disrupted. Parents and families are no longer geared to all day child minding and many cannot wait for their routines to be reestablished.
The old normal, they must realise, is never coming back.
A few things have happened since schools were forced to move to remote learning in the crisis. Many schools leapfrogged years of reluctance and moved to a form of online learning that was constructed fairly rapidly. This showed us the difference between the haves, and the have nots. It showed us what was essential to us, and thus the gaps between those who had access to infrastructure and those who were left behind. The Digital Divide was made visible.
The gap between good teaching and poor teaching was also clearly showcased, each day, in each learning device. Students of poor teachers were frustrated as their schools tried to replicate themselves in online spaces. Good teachers who had always focused on learning how to learn, and on skilling and enabling their students were able to engage students – and it was they who were worried about meeting their own standards.
Anxiety rose, not because of online learning, but because digital pedagogies had not evolved – and teachers were winging it. After years of teaching practice backed by evidence based theories, validated by their experience, teachers were flying by the seat of their pants, and they knew that they had done better before. This was good news – this meant that teachers and students together had understood the gaps, and the journey to better pedagogies online could begin.
It wasn’t all bad with online teaching either despite broad high level studies that indicate that online learning has been a failure. Online learning has not been a failure – it has not been tested. What has been tested is that crisis response and winging it with new pedagogies that are untested is a failure. This is not news – under normal circumstances only tested pedagogies a, re applied in schools. We are not living in normal times, so let us not glorify crisis jugaad methods with digital pedagogies, and let us not judge all of online learning (as it will evolve) with patched up tinkering with the pieces of online communication technologies and face to face batch based pedagogies.
At best what we have here is a broad understanding (via the surveys and studies conducted so far) and many anecdotes. A quick survey of education and dipstick interviews with educators, parents and students during remote learning period have thrown up many other very interesting insights too.
The first, which should have been expected, but can be empirically verified, is that over the months the proficiency levels with technologies, or at least specific tools improved. Naturally, one would think, but it wasn’t just about knowing what buttons to press. There was more going on in the man-machine relationship. Anxiety levels went down, group norms were established. An understanding of mutual limitations and compensatory behaviours evolved. Some months of pranks later (and pranks were always a part of the physical school too), supportive behaviours also emerged. There was a new camaraderie, different from the old. We don’t know if it is better or worse, we don’t know if it is the new normal, or just a phase – but it is here for now. A working relationship between learning participants has a baseline now. Stuff gets done.
Two, some wonderful feedback has also emerged. Since the most common form of remote learning has been online learning, and since many families are limited to few devices. learning has not only been observed, but also shared. This is a whole new chapter in improved learning across the home, as is there between members of the family. Since lessons are recorded and watched, many report reduction in bullying. Physical bullying obviously would have reduced as physical contact is removed. Cyber bullying is likely to have hidden itself in corners not visible to parents and teachers – we may have to work on this.
Another positive that has arisen from teachers trying harder and harder to engage students online is that class engagement is reported to have become more equitable in many instances. No longer is one a front bencher or a back bencher – each one is an equal square on the screen. It may be so that each has become equidistant, but the distance has increased. True. But also the energy to reduce that distance is being applied more and more consistently by teachers across the world. Many students report that they don’t feel ignored in class as much as they used to, and that they appreciate how hard teachers try to include tem. This is what evolution looks like.
It cannot be denied that online learning looks and feels ersatz to those of us wedded to the belief that what was past was real, and better. What we are seeing though is that the face to face classroom required one kind of energy to engage, and the online classroom requires a different kind of energy. Like for fire, it was flint – we are looking for ways to trigger it. We need to figure out how to switch it on, how to calibrate it, how it works and how do we transmit it across learning groups. We need to understand and codify the energies of online learning spaces.
Three, the choice based pace has been wonderful for many students. With so much more of the learning package being shifted to asynchronous, it gives so much more choice to those students who wished to pace their learning differently. Instead of having forty minutes of content being revealed, demonstrated, illustrated, tested, tried and then analysed and more, many students work better at their own pace, with the elements being threaded and checked in different ways.
These experiments with digital learning have opened the floodgates on innovative teaching, and we need to learn from the best of them. Learning, teaching and the parts of the experience have all now been put in different configurations. At the very least we have learnt to handle them in different sequences, at best we are on our way to truly personalising learning while still teaching a group.
Does this mean that online learning is the new normal? Is that what we should be working towards? Certainly not. It’s not this or that, binary, black or white, and why should it be. We have learnt a few things about learning through this churn. We have learnt a few things about ourselves as students and teachers, as we coped. We learnt much about the artificiality of the divide between life and learning, about our ability to adapt and evolve, about sharing democratic spaces and hardship and pushing through and solving for what seem to be limitations. We have built capacities for adding many more dimensions to the learning story. It would be a shame to waste these new capacities and go back to the old normal.
We have evolved. Let’s own it.