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EDITORIAL: Emergency remote delivery not a substitute for learning in a school setting

April 28, 2020 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief


I have often been an early adopter of technology in my teaching career. In 2003, I became the lead teacher for our school division on a program to pilot video conferencing for remote teaching.

I volunteered for video conferencing to help make the teaching of Math 31 in our school sustainable. In our small rural school, very few students enrolled, but those who did needed to have it. Bringing together students from a number of small rural schools ensured that our students would continue to have access to it — with a teacher in front of them.

I taught a small number of students in my classroom while being simultaneously broadcast into rooms in up to two other schools. Class sizes were small and the students were good independent workers, so it worked.

For those distanced students, I recognized that this format for learning was less than ideal. I was much more effective as a face-to-face instructor, but I also saw it as necessary in the situation.

Watching Alberta’s teachers respond to the COVID-19 situation has reminded me of this aspect of my teaching career.

We have seen some exceptional work done by teachers across the province — and globe, for that matter — to continue learning in an unprecedented time. I have seen it directly with the efforts made by both of my kids’ teachers. It is amazing to see such flexibility, adaptability and ingenuity put to work.

There will be people who look at this experiment and decide that it should become a model for ongoing systemic changes to delivering education en masse. We need to push back against this idea.

Yes, there are amazing distance learning programs and teachers across the province that are doing great work every day to deliver authentic learning. And it works very well for certain students and certain situations. But it also requires a large number of supports and multiple opportunities for intervention; often there are ways for students to access in-person supports when required. These programs have to be very carefully assembled and, even then, they aren’t a good fit for all students.

This “careful assembly” that I’ve described is not what is happening now. What we are doing now — and with teachers’ best efforts and some amazing ingenuity — can best be described as emergency remote learning. It’s really important to recognize that this is less than ideal and is not a substitute for regular in-school and in-class learning.

In-person schooling provides a number of societal benefits that cannot be replaced by virtual teaching. Learning is a relational endeavour and that is best achieved in person.

First, and most importantly, is the value of socialization. Schooling, and public education in particular, teaches students how to engage as members of a larger society. It teaches them how to respect and work with people with different talents, abilities, needs and backgrounds.

Face-to-face schooling also provides important interaction between young people and other positive role models and empathetic adults. It is not always easy to assess emotional well-being through a computer screen, so having different adults spend time with students can help facilitate mental health or other necessary social interventions that might otherwise get missed.

Finally, we have to acknowledge that in-person schooling provides an important economic imperative for society. It is not our favourite reason as teachers, but we must acknowledge that sending students to school enables parents to more easily participate in the workforce. And despite the amount of working from home that is going on right now, we know that productivity is currently down and many parents are unable to work from home.

So even though distance learning must remain available as an important option for those students that need or benefit from it, we must resist efforts to apply distance learning models across the board. ❚

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