The Pitfalls of Virtual Learning

The Pitfalls of Virtual Learning

In recent weeks, thousands of tweets and memes have confirmed how valuable (and underpaid) teachers are in the U.S.  as millions of parents have tried to take over the education of their children amid the coronavirus shutdown.  We have all watched in real time as school districts scrambled to move some or all of their learning to online platforms, using Zoom, Blackboard, Moodle, Google Drive and Google Docs, and whatever else was available to try to recoup the loss of more than a full quarter of the school year.

This has thrown into sharp relief a number of holes in our system surrounding how technology is used in classrooms.  One of the primary problems — and it’s a big one — is access.  Many districts have struggled to provide devices to kids so that they can learn at home. But even with devices, access is still problematic.  My children live in a 1:1 district, meaning there’s a device for every child in the district.  Moving things online after the shutdown should have been a piece of cake, right?  Except there is a significant portion of students that have tablets but don’t have WiFi at home. The district guarantees that every student has a device, but can’t guarantee an environment outside of school where that device can be used.  This situation really begs the question of what these kids were doing before the shutdown if they had to work on their tablets?   But that makes my head hurt, so let’s talk about something else.

The second problem with this new online learning is quality.  Virtual learning is going to be substandard to in-person learning unless there is careful design and preparation. Teachers and districts are doing the best they can right now and I am happy to extend them abundant grace in this area, but many districts made the shift to more online learning long before COVID-19 and the shutdown has only demonstrated how limited the vision for this type of educational platform can be.  CMSi has evaluated online learning for many districts and the model we use to rate this type of learning is called SAMR .  SAMR stands for Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition, and it represents a continuum of how technology is integrated into schools.

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At the bottom is Substitution: districts simply trade paper copies of materials for online copies.  While this saves paper and saves kids from lugging massive biology texts around in their backpacks, it doesn’t necessarily represent an improvement.  Doing a worksheet online is still doing a worksheet.  It may even be a detriment: moving writing tasks online too soon can deprive kids of important motor skills. Using PowerPoint to present information about a topic instead of writing a paragraph can make it hard for kids to learn how to make their writing cohesive.  The critical question here is, What are we gaining by replacing this with technology?  Sometimes, the answer is,”Nothing.”

Augmentation is a little further along the continuum:  The idea here is that the ability of the student to respond to the material is enhanced by the technology. So, they might write an essay on Macbeth and include interactive elements such as video clips of stage performances to illustrate their evidence, and links to Shakespeare’s source materials for the play.  The base materials are still a simple substitution, but the student’s responses are augmented.  The  key question is: How does the technology affect the student’s productivity?

Modification is where things start to get interesting because it’s the onset of transformation:  there is an actual change to the lesson and the task specifications because of the technology. The key question here is: Does the technology significantly alter the task?  An example of this would be a group of students who collaborate in a cloud-based workspace to design a survey and then invite their classmates to take it. Then they collaborate in the cloud to report the findings of the survey and analyze what the findings show. Together they create a presentation of their survey, how they designed it, the data they collected from it, and what those data mean.

The final point on the continuum is Redefinition. At this level, the technology fundamentally alters the task in a way that makes it a completely new experience that would not be possible without the technology. So, building from the example above,  most of the activities could be conducted without technology if necessary, but students could go on to use technology to survey students in other schools in different parts of the U.S. or even in other countries, and then compare and contrast the data collected.  The essential question here is: Does this allow us to redefine task specifications in a way that would not be possible without the technology?

Unfortunately, many online and virtual education programs stop at Augmentation.  Some stop at Substitution. Technology is  the same old same old, dressed up with better graphics and a few bells and whistles. When this happens, the technology doesn’t represent an improvement over a static resource like a traditional textbook. It is useful, however, in situations like the one we are currently in, to have all those texts and resources online so students can access them easily. Unless, of course, they don’t have WiFi…


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