The Inexcusable State of Distance Learning

This is going to be one those posts targeted at the parents in our audience, particularly ones assisting their child in learning from home activity, but this situation affects all of you in the long term. This also isn’t going to be a comfortable one, and it will be pointedly pissing on what has become a third rail of social graces. By and large, educators from K-12 through to large Universities in the United States (I imagine other places too, but this is the system I’m familiar with) got caught with their pants down with distance learning being rapidly brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. That’s only a small part of what this article is about though, because while the initial pants down moment was somewhat understandable the reaction to that moment by-and-large was to declare it fashionable, and that is what we’ll be talking about today. We’ll also be going over some stress reduction techniques and learning enhancing behavior later on.

Educators are largely trained in face-to-face pedagogy. There are many reasons for this, some political, some not, but the fact remains that nearly all the teachers actively teaching in the field right now had little to no training in distance learning techniques during their primary training—4+ year programs. In higher-ed there is widely varied adoption of distance learning initiatives. Some are very robust, others are underfunded prototypes. In K-12 distance learning options practically didn’t exist for most students, and even the programs that were available were borne out of ADA compliance and weren’t designed to scale. This next bit is going to be controversial and of course has to be bracketed between the careful language of “in my experience”.

Actually yeah, let’s get to my experience before I drop these bacon potato bombs, because it’s going to be uncomfortable for some of you to hear and cause some of you to go on the defensive. I have 11 years experience in higher ed, split about equally at this point between distance learning support and physical classroom support. I take both jobs very seriously, and especially from the pedagogical support lens, which is the lens I view my entire career in education from. My mother also taught for over 30 years….out of county. For those of you who don’t know what that means, it means we lacked access to the bus system. This lead to long hours after and before school in my mother’s classroom. I am unfortunately very familiar with the extra work caused by lesson planning and individual assessment and improvement plans and whatever the administration comes up with to turn teachers and students into quanta that they can collect and measure. Bonus points she went through the trouble of getting a masters in teaching the developmentally challenged students. Neither of these warranted extra compensation in her time.

All that being said, the instructor population at-large fits into a category I would label as technologically illiterate, and worse a subsection of those willfully and deliberately so. I spent the 90s in middle and high-school, and we were told by our instructors then that computer literacy would be absolutely necessary to get gainful employment. This seems to have been overlooked in the places where it is preached, though I do agree with the preaching. It was the lack of training and administrative readiness that understandably caused so much chaos during the initial lock-downs, but as the fall season rolls into full swing it is this general technological illiteracy leaving us feeling as if no progress has been made. When my daughter attended her virtual orientation for kindergarten this year, her teacher was unable to get Zoom to function for a good 15 minutes at the beginning of the orientation. This wasn’t because Zoom was experiencing trouble, because it does from time to time due to the massive load, it was because her excuse was that she had literally never opened Zoom before prior to that orientation in late August and she was still unfamiliar with how to even get it started. It may be the case, maybe you’ve felt this in your gut, that you are as qualified in this environment as they are or as equally clueless, you may nevertheless be on more equal ground than you realize or want to admit.

I know it is controversial to be upset by that because my colleagues insist that I shouldn’t be surprised by this nor should I really demand better. Of course, my colleagues also hold the views that instructors are not just technologically illiterate but that they are perpetually doomed to remain so. This has been beaten into their minds through Pavlovian experiences trying to lead horses to water. So it wasn’t that they thought I was over-reacting, they were just merely positing that I give up on teachers as functional human beings as they have. It’s hard to empathize with holding people to standards when you’ve tossed the idea of standards out, you see. If you’re an instructor you’ve no doubt encountered the kind of ‘support’ these sorts of people attempt to give you, and I assure you it’s not your imagination that you hear contempt from them. I assure you they didn’t start their careers so cynical and it may be time to have a heart to heart with some of your colleagues. The ones that care anyway.

On that note, don’t pretend they all care. That’s not doing anyone any favors, least of all the children. Every single child in K-12 knows who the good teachers are and who is there to collect a check and they can name names. So can you. But when it comes to making statements to the public and when it comes to sloganeering during strikes, the phalanx forms around the idea that educators are all hyper-intelligent angels, better than human, that for some reason we don’t demand run for public office—we leave that to their administrators which have largely gobbled up nearly all the increases in public school funding for decades. It seems to me that one of the worst crimes, one of the quickest ways to end a career in education is to publicly say how rotten this situation really is. To tell the truth. This is not an environment where pressure to improve is taken well. It’s not a people problem really, it’s a system problem. The administrators and unions carefully craft messages and public image from the point of view that they can do no wrong, and when the obvious falsehood is challenged it’s targeted at the underpaid instructors that didn’t craft the message in the first place, frequently some of the good instructors. Meanwhile the administrative overhead of the whole wagon train goes up and up and up while their never-stepped-in-a-classroom dictates to instructors pile on. To say instructors have fatigue is an understatement. K-12 is where dreams go to die.

Speaking of administrators, many aren’t giving their schools any sort of cohesive direction. They suffer from bureaucratic paralysis. They don’t want to be responsible for making a bad decision, and like all bureaucracies they look up the chain in order to dodge the responsibility of being in charge while enjoying the benefits. The principals wait for the school board, the school board waits for the state, the state parrots whatever the CDC is saying. As a result, many schools are going online without a plan at all. Forward looking heads would have had their instructors training during the summer, perhaps even paid to do so!—I hope any instructors here appreciate that paid bit for the joke it was intended to be. You can also see this in Zoom adoption, which I know a few of you have found curious and I’ve been openly asked about. K-12 is largely playing copycat here. While Zoom was ready and nimbly taking care of things like FERPA concerns in higher-ed, downstream largely copied these decisions without thinking about them. In a K-12 context and especially K-5 where instructors don’t change much throughout the day even Discord can be made a more secure remote teaching platform than Zoom, with more granular control over the content students can see and transmit.

The kids are learning Zoom and distance learning far faster than their unprepared and frightened instructors. On that note, tell your unions to get better at optics. If you are going to campaign so hard on the very real dangers of holding in-person classes the very least you could do is not look so incompetent at basic teleconferencing as an institution. Funny enough one of your favorite scapegoats, the uninvolved parents, have largely and out of necessity stepped up here. I’m not saying all of them have, but it’s enough to throw that talking point out the window. They watch these Zoom meetings with their children as much as they can, because they have to figure out microphone and webcam problems. Problems the school districts should have helped them anticipate and prepare for and largely haven’t. Many of them have so little experience with those technologies that they don’t even know the answer, though now that we’ve been at this for roughly half the year, that excuse rings hollow.

Despite these glaring issues and failures it is clear there is still a population of instructors in this country who don’t feel like technological literacy is in their job description even while their ability to do their job hinges on it. As a population, instructors have failed, administrators have failed, the system has failed. Mistakes are part of being a human being, but holding your nose until someone comes along to fix your situation for you is something we should start dismissing teachers and administrators for. It is long past time to take down the saintly untouchable veneer of the school system, public, private, kindergarten through graduate programs. The whole thing.

Okay so, easy to criticize right? None of this cathartic bellyaching is going to help any parent looking for answers and solutions right now is it. I hear you. Here are some things you can do to improve the efficacy of remote instruction. Some of these are easy to implement, others may require a fight with the school system. It’s time to be ready to fight.

Regular screen-time breaks are necessary. The younger they are the more necessary this is. Modern K-12 was already a posture killing screen-time overdose—no really, look into the American Pediatric Associations screen time guidelines—prior to COVID. Physical outdoor activity where at all possible. This is one of those you may have to fight with the schools on. It will vary. I’ve seen some districts come down real hard on always being present in teleconferencing and others that seem to have actually reared children before. The idea of the contiguous back-to-back class schedule was never a pedagogical solution, but a solution of logistics. It is obsolete in the current environment. Remind your school system that a lot of their field trips were thinly veiled vacation days and that there should still be field trip days scheduled on the calendar. If you have the benefit of paid time off I encourage you to really make this a quality outing for everyone involved. Safely, get out of the house.

Have a conversation with your child about what constitutes an emergency intervention and what doesn’t. Most of the time they can de-stress by writing stuff down when they don’t understand it and having follow-up time with the instructor later. This can be due to not understanding things, or because the audio quality became poor during the lesson, but it is a good idea to avoid anxiety overload by writing down what the trouble was, what the subject was, and getting back to that later. Don’t let the anxiety train leave the station, as it can cause trouble learning the next subject while worrying about the prior, which adds another car to the anxiety train, and on it goes. Obviously it helps if your child is old enough to write for this technique to work but if you have a detailed lesson plan you can even do this with index cards. You can have an index card for each subject, and the child can color it green/yellow/red for how confused they felt during instruction. Whatever you choose to do, have a system for getting your attention and for putting off for later what doesn’t need your immediate attention. This won’t work perfectly straight away, and you’ll have to adjust it as you go, but please do it.

For older children forming self-instructive habits will be the key to success. Much of modern schooling was already turning into showing a bunch of YouTube videos to the class—even and perhaps especially in entry college courses. It is likely they will need help in tougher subjects as they get older. It is also likely that if you didn’t come to use trigonometry daily in your life that you’ve not retained much of it. How do you help your student if they’re in AP physics and you dropped out of highschool for a welding gig. That may be an extreme example, but it’s more common than you think. This always applied, COVID just makes it more important. It will also be a useful skill in higher-ed as many research instructors not only are terrible instructors but don’t care about being terrible instructors. The independent learning resources available to your child are enormous.

Both of you should have hard books-down/work-down cutoff times. Work/life balance was already a tricky subject when they were physically separate places to be. Make and enforce pencils down time. That goes for you too. You’re in this together now, you’re both working from home and your daily experiences may be more similar than they’ve ever been, use this as a vehicle to connect. I also anticipate that due to the environment of the virtual classroom being more chaotic, more work will get pushed into ‘homework’. Push back. There’s already too much of it.

On the note of pushing back. It’s time to connect with as many other parents as you can stand to. Do not let districts use this crisis to overburden you and your children while they skirt their own responsibilities. Be vocal, be loud, be disobedient because lord knows they don’t have the time or patience to deal with even 10% of you. I mean, that’s for when/if the situation becomes adversarial, try to avoid that, but be mindful. This is buckle-up and strap-in time for everyone, and some people will try to escape that responsibility. On that note be ready to contribute yourself. Be willing to come up with solutions that work for your community, solutions that may require ditching old conventions and putting in some set-up work. The loudly complaining disobedient part is for when the ‘rules’ get in the way. They will.

You need distance too. It may have already occurred to you that loving your children doesn’t make them any less aggravating as anyone else when you’re in routine constant contact. You may need to schedule some hard split time for them, just as you scheduled work-down/books-down time. This is your reminder that stress reduction is one of the most effective ways to increase retention of class materials, and also helps you be productive at work, to speak nothing of any number of assorted health markers. Hopefully this article has provided some solutions and catharsis to help with the same.

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