The year is 2155. Margie and Tommy have found a real book, one that’s printed on paper. Margie can’t believe what it says about school.
“ A man? How could a man be a teacher?”
“Well, he just told the boys and girls things and gave them homework and asked them questions.”
“A man isn’t smart enough,” Margie says.
Isaac Asimov’s short story The Fun They Had was first published in 1951. In the story, children learn at home using telebooks and instruction from a mechanical, robot teacher, a system far removed from Margie’s grandfather’s day when children learnt together in schools and classrooms from a human teacher.
What a far-fetched idea for a story, you might have said in 2019. But now?
So, has the pandemic changed the way we should approach education now? Is online education the future of learning for children and young people?
What are the arguments for online learning?
Of course, we have to take into account the differences between a Year 1 pupil and a sixth-former. But proponents of online learning point to advantages that can benefit all ages.
It’s easier to learn in chunks, at your own pace. Classroom learning is crammed into longer segments and you have no choice when you do it.
You can encourage deeper thought in learners. After all, you are not limited by the confines of a physical classroom. The world is your classroom. Well, the internet, anyway.
Teachers have to make resources more clear and accessible as they have less time to interact with learners. This means pupils make more progress.
And even though you lose out on physical interaction, discussion boards, breakout rooms and chat forums can provide useful opportunities for collaboration, even enhancing the experience for quieter pupils who might not have participated in a classroom discussion at all.
But do these arguments hold up in the real world? Teachers perhaps have a more evidenced opinion at the end of 2020 than they had at the beginning of the year!
What do the teachers say?
Like in any profession, there are lots of different opinions. The only thing they seem to agree about is that parents’ meetings are better online! As for the experience of learning, the picture is less clear.
Learning at your own pace can be beneficial, especially in secondary settings, and it is good for independent research. But learners who work more slowly just get further and further behind and their experience of live lessons, if there are any, is less good because of this.
Pupils do have the time to think but equally they don’t have the buzz of a live classroom discussion to inspire deeper thinking. The clunky mute, unmute, mute scenarios do not come close to the momentum generated by a lively classroom debate.
Teacher resources do need to be more thorough and clear. However, that takes time which is not something teachers have an enormous amount of. Voice recording lessons and instructions, creating all new resources, one experienced KS3 teacher described it as “being like an NQT again.” And it often comes down to teachers’ IT skills and the support available in schools as well as the access learners themselves have to reliable IT equipment and wifi.
And there is a bigger question prompted by this debate. The biggest question of all, actually.
What is education for?
The criticism of online learning is that it is sterile, dull, unsociable. Surely learning should be exactly the opposite?
Online learning can undoubtedly focus teachers and students to stick to the point, to avoid unnecessary conversations that divert from the focus of the lesson. But where’s the fun in that? Education must be more than the acquiring of knowledge and skills that can be applied to a particular subject. And in the hands of good teachers, smart teachers, it is.
One primary teacher spoke to me of the importance of pupils being “socialised while they’re learning.” And this requires a good teacher, a human teacher, to be able to read the room, to know how to deal with issues that arise and to care for the needs of the whole child. In the virtual world, that does seem more challenging to do. A happy child will learn better and that is perhaps why one primary school deputy head told me, “I think most primary teachers just want children in the classroom.”
So, in 2155 will the real life Margie and Tommy look back fondly on post-2020 education and marvel at “the fun they had” in physical classrooms? Or is online education the future and can that provide the excitement and thrill that learning always should?
Human teachers, I can’t imagine you’ll have time but if you do, leave your thoughts underneath! And keep your eyes out for those robots!