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Aug 31, 2020

The parallel universe does exist: Education after the pandemic

The current pandemic is not that interesting on its own; history knows a plenty of similar tragedies. What is interesting is that for the first time in history, we have a spare universe to hide from the disease. A hundred years ago, when the Spanish flu raged, it did not exist. People had no choice but to live as they always did, with only few restrictions on crowds, movie theaters closings, and mask ordinances. None of that worked very well, and the disease claimed 50 million lives. In Italy, corpse collection points were established and no funeral ceremonies were permitted. In general, people more or less endured and waited for the disease to wear off, as it happened for millennia.

In 2020, it became possible to transfer a significant part of the economy and public life online. We orchestrated a massive move into a parallel universe where the virus is powerless. One can argue that this parallel universe is not as good as the real one, and that it cannot contain everything we need. That is all true. It is pale, cramped, and awkward. But complaining about it reminds me this Far Side cartoon. You have to appreciate a miracle first, and then see its flaws. The fact that this universe exists at all is a miracle. For example, hundreds of millions of children continued to learn. Again, the learning was marginal and uncomfortable, but – they continued to learn in schools that do not really exist outside out imagination. Some economists assumed that, in the United States, unemployment would reach 25%, but it is only 10%. Many industries, of course, remain in the physical universe. No one has learned to eat or wear digits. Yet some have successfully shifted online. Media, markets are working, some kind of research is being done, conferences are being held, governments, banks, and a significant part of the service industry continue to work. Without the Internet, the current quarantine would have been impossible, and who knows how many more people would have died.

The Internet existed before the pandemic. No one except science fiction writers suspected how big it could become, and what huge pieces of the old universe it can accommodate. We knew it existed, just did not know it is the size of the world. If you think about it, the scale of the event of the massive online migration is striking. The pandemic has made possible the discovery of a whole new universe. The discovery of the New World by Europeans may serve as a distant historical parallel. A discovery of a new earth-like reachable planet could be an analogy from the future. Yes, we ourselves have created this new universe, but it turns out that creating something does not necessarily include appreciation of the scale of our creation. It happened during my lifetime, from the Gopher protocol, to this. If you do not remember Gopher, you are too young to have witnessed the dawn of the Internet. It is a world that sprung out of human thought, in an act of the new divine creation.

Walking around the deserted campus makes a strong impression. It gives an uneasy feeling. It makes you wonder how necessary are all these buildings, lawns and roads, the water tower, and the dining halls. After all, for more than five months no one has been using much of this, and yet students learn, graduate, and life somehow goes on. Hundreds of millions in public investments bask in the sun and does very little. A huge question mark hovers over everything. I can’t help wondering, what is next for us?

The spare universe discovery allowed to ask questions that had simply never occurred to us before. For example, what is the actual value and importance of the good old physical universe, of the physical presence of other people, and what role do they play in education? Without leaving the familiar universe, one cannot comprehend its uniqueness. Living inside, you cannot look from the outside. Who thought about the “physicality” of human existence, until it suddenly became optional? Humans evolved adapting to life in the physical universe. In order to teach and learn, we prefer to have other people around. You don't even have to talk to them or work with them. Just knowing that someone is nearby and you are not alone facing the unknown, is important. The presence of others creates the motivation and the reason to learn. Students and teachers complain of a strange quarantine syndrome, in which a person gets inexplicably tired. People complain of a loss of interest in work and study, lethargy and depression. There are already several studies suggesting that there has been a rather significant loss of learning. Moving to a new universe has not been painless, but it is pain that is often the signal leading to new developments.

The forced massive transition to online made visible what we really need in the physical universe, and what is its real value. For example, it became clearer that education is not so much about information as it is about relationships. We can, of course, build relationships online, but only with a lot of time and effort. In the real universe, the eye contact, the fleeting facial expressions, the tone of voice, and body language – all of these create the relational canvas naturally and largely without the conscious mind’s participation. A human brain does a tremendous work processing relational information below full awareness in order to free consciousness for other important tasks. Savants can remember and multiply huge numbers because they have extra available brain capacities that ordinary people use on calculating relations. Teaching and learning online has made all of us a bit autistic. High functioning autists learn to process the relational data in their conscious mind, and many do it remarkably well. Building relationships online is like trying to talk while shouting across the street: you can understand, but it does not feel natural and it takes a lot of time and effort. I suspect that autistic people did not notice much of a difference; they always live like this and have adapted. Most of us are just now trying to adapt.

One of the main consequences of this collective experience will be valuing the ordinary universe more for what it is. For example, schools and universities should create better conditions for human relationships to flourish. We will see more clearly what is important and what is expendable. The physical expressions and environment for human relations is fundamental to education. The poor and the disabled live their entire lives in semi-quarantined conditions, restricted to travel and in an uncomfortable spaces. Now we all got a taste of such a life. Perhaps the experience will move us to make changes?

It is very possible that education will somehow split over time into two intertwined streams, where knowledge will be dealt with in an online environment, while relationships and experiences - in the real world. After all, you can really learn only from the teacher with whom you have a relationship that has developed outside the curriculum. Environment and experiences are converted into relationships, and those in in turn may convert into motivation for curriculum-defined learning. The chain of conversions is pretty obvious.

We learned a lot about the new universe; not only about its enormous usefulness and incredible opportunities, but also about its shortcomings. For example, it has become apparent that access to the high-speed Internet is one of the most important barriers. Internet access one of the most important manifestations of inequality. Unlike the economic inequity, the digital divide can be bridged without any side effects. Even the staunchest free marketeers should not object against the digital socialism, because it is the essential levelling of the playing field. How about a constitutional amendment: the right to broadband Internet access for all residents? By the way, such laws exist in a number of European countries. We cannot tolerate the fact that many poor kids were denied their education because they don’t have broadband service.

The second thing that is becoming more and more obvious is that the online universe has different laws of nature. At the peak of the crisis, the least experienced teachers simply moved their lectures to Zoom. It quickly became clear that even the most persistent teacher or student could not sit in front of a screen for six or eight hours a day. At the other extreme was switching to a self-guided study, where a professor gives assignments, and students are supposed to figure out how to do them. Doug Lemov wrote that in the most abstract sense, all learning is reduced to the triad of I-we-you. I is when the teacher demonstrates to students how something should be done. Then WE do it together with you (first, I with your help, and then you with my help), and finally you do it yourself. In online learning, the first and last steps are both easy to implement. But the essence of the educational process is precisely the middle link of the chain, the “we.” It is when some skill is already in the zone of proximal development, but has not yet been mastered. Through joint activity, in cooperation with a teacher or a more advanced peer, the student can already reach for the new skill. The joint activity contains the essence of social learning. And it’s just very difficult to implement online - possible, but difficult, because cooperation is a delicate intuitive process. Now I am holding you by the saddle of your bicycle, and now I have let it go, but you do not know this yet. In any education, this moment is the most precious.

In any LMS, connections are too coarse and too unidirectional. You either watch (read) how the teacher (or video) explains something, or you do your own work, and the teacher checks it later. The delicate “in-between,” where we work together on something, is hard to re-create. In practical terms, this problem is to come up with interesting, varied and useful types of student activity with exactly appropriate level of complexity - just within the ZPD’s “Goldie Locks zone:” not too cold and not too hot. Many teachers simply do not have enough explicit knowledge and experience to do that. Competent teachers do that all the time in the f2f environment, and do it intuitively. Now they have to make their own skill explicit and implement in a completely foreign communication medium.

Those who teach online for the first time should be prepared for a pleasant surprise at the end of this painful experience. Learning how to teach online makes you a better offline teacher. You will better understand exactly what you expect from your students. The superficial fluff falls off, and you can focus on the most important: here is what I want to teach, here is how I will know what they have learned, and here are the exact steps to get there. In the intermediate zone of the "we," one cannot run, one has to take small steps. In the online universe, these steps suddenly become visible, like in slow motion movie. Do not despair if this has not happened yet; it is a matter of time and persistence. The picture will certainly appear, suddenly and completely. Your discoveries will apply equally, if not more, to the offline universe. We will return from the new universe a different people.

The future of education is more complex than it seems. I do not really understand enthusiasts of online education who think that we all will be pushed into the permanent bliss of the digital universe. They believe education will become cheaper, more affordable and more efficient. I see no evidence supporting such enthusiasm. Without a doubt, with the end of the quarantine, most students and teachers will return to the offline universe. The temporary move to the virtual universe was too painful for anything else. Refugees normally return home as soon as they can. But the temporary shelter changes them; they will be different upon return. People will remember what was actually better and easier to do online, and will include it in their teaching arsenal. Elements of online will permeate education and other areas. I imagine we will do many more zoom meetings, after things will get back to normal, just because they are easier to schedule and quicker to travel to. In the best-case scenario, education will be enriched by the on-line migration experience, become more flexible, more tolerant, and learn to understand itself better than before. We will not permanently move to the new universe, but we will use it as a huge playground and workshop. I also do not agree with conservatives, who believe that everything will return back to normal, exactly how it was before. How can you survive something this big and not learn anything from it?

Aug 6, 2020

Tool fetishism in online teaching

Anxiety about online teaching skills often manifests in an interesting way: instructors are drawn to the vast array of digital tools, platforms, and services available for classroom use. Examples include Padlet, Flipgrid, Word Wall, Kahoot, Edmodo, Socrative, Projeqt, Thinglink, eduClipper, Animoto, and many more, with hundreds out there, each boasting its own fan club. Instructors also turn to blogs, website building platforms, Google and Office tools, smartphone apps, YouTube, Vimeo, and the like.

This attraction to digital tools is a form of "fetishism." Discovering a new tool can instill a sense of agency and accomplishment, making it feel like "your thing" and awakening creativity. While this can be fun, the costs are significant.

Modern Learning Management Systems (LMS) like Canvas have features that nearly replicate what these specialized tools offer. You don't need Kahoot to create a quiz, or Flipgrid for video discussion; Canvas and Zoom can usually suffice. Although external tools may appear flashier or slightly more effective for specific purposes, students often find them frustrating. An undergraduate might juggle five classes, each requiring one or two new platforms, accounts, passwords, and menu systems.

Some argue that learning these tools is part of digital literacy training. However, true digital literacy lies in the ability to critically assess various tools, resisting the allure of novelty to focus on the essence of the task at hand. Real professionals maintain a skeptical attitude, knowing that no tool is irreplaceable, and each comes with pros and cons. Most will only be relevant for a few years, and an over-enthusiasm for a specific tool can be a sign of inexperience.

Every minute spent exploring a new digital toy detracts from essential pedagogical thought and course design. Successful online courses hinge on the instructor's careful planning and clear objectives, not on a myriad of digital tools. Time students spend learning a new platform also diverts them from the course's intended learning goals.

The bar for incorporating a new digital tool should be high: it must be unique, directly aligned with class objectives, and not available through the standard LMS like Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle. If a tool meets these criteria, it can certainly be useful. But an undue focus on tools becomes problematic and detracts from teaching and learning.

The underlying principles of successful online course design include simplicity, predictability, variety, and explicit step-by-step progression. Simplicity means fulfilling course objectives with the least complicated technology and minimal tools. The focus should be on basics, without being sidetracked by every shiny new gadget. If there's interest, further elaboration on these principles can be provided. But for now, let's return to foundational practices and resist being seduced by the ever-changing landscape of digital tools.