On “Returning to Normal”

The “education industry” has been trying to navigate COVID for two years, and it looks like we will continue for the foreseeable future. One of the interesting aspects of this has been the insistence that we return to in-person teaching.

I find this to be a puzzling situation. First, it is contrary to the pre-COVID rhetoric (at least in the institutions with which I am most familiar) that online offerings were to be an important source of students in the future. Second, online sections have much higher enrollments than face-to-face sections (again in the institutions with which I am most familiar).

Why the sudden change? I suspect there are a at least issues:

1) The pivot to remote in early 2020 was not well-done. How could it have been? Faculty and students were halfway through the semester, they had settled into their work, and many were managing with minimal technology. When we pivoted to remote, that coincided with disruptions in all other aspects of our lives and our students lives.

While we cannot blame anyone for spring 2020 not being what we had hoped, the effects on school administrators must have been considerable. I am sure there were folks lining up to complain, and I am sure many were students who were claiming they did not get their money’s worth.

Forward looking administrators should have seen the extraordinary circumstances of spring 2020 and taken steps to ensure online courses offered after spring 2020 were effectively designed and delivered. They also should have decided to be prepared for the potential that pivoting will be necessary in the future. (I write this in the last week of 2021, and the potential that the Omicron variant will cause a spike in early 2022 is real. Many are also concerned about the potential for climate change to disrupt schooling.)

2) In-person teaching is a very easy-to-do model for all. The dominant model of teaching for generations has been what I call “telling-and-testing,” and it is familiar. Teachers stand before groups of students and tell them what they need to know. Compared to other types of teaching, lecturing is quite easy. One plans what they will say and say it; sprinkling in some jokes and asking some leading questions makes it seem students are engaged and learning.

Students need only pay attention to what the teacher says and remember it long enough to answer the questions on the test, then all are happy that they have met the learning objectives. Administrators are familiar with this method of teaching (they probably did it for at least part of their careers). It is easy to assess, and students are unlikely to complain, thus it is preferred.

The degree to which “telling-and-testing” produces the type of graduates we want to produce is open to debate. As an online teacher, I have seen how “telling-and-testing” is not a model that translates to online classrooms. It becomes very clear that lecture is not a tenable teaching method when one watches a video of a lecture. Online discussions that are poorly framed become a hassle for students and teachers and do not lead to the deeper learning we anticipate.

Good online courses do combine diverse activities, interaction, and assessments that are unfamiliar to many teachers, students, and administrators. These classrooms can be very unfamiliar to those expecting “telling-and-testing.”

We seem to be at another pivot point in education. Either pivot to effective and engaging online teaching or return to the familiar past. Only one of these directions will allow schools to be relevant to their communities, and we seem to be making the wrong choice.