The Perils and Follies of Online Education
I had an opportunity to grab some quiet, focused time recently with my 17-year-old son. As it happened, we were sitting in my car, navigating the line at the Dell Diamond for him to get his first COVID vaccination shot. This took 30-to-40 minutes, and gave us plenty of time to talk.
As we were gabbing, he informed me that he was really looking forward to going back to the classroom next fall. Then he dropped a bomb on me — and educators everywhere, I hope — when he said, "Lots of stuff is more worth watching than classes on Zoom."
By way of elaboration, he said it was much easier to pay attention to lectures and classroom instruction when he's there in person, as opposed to watching on a computer. I totally get it — not just because he's a cinemaphile and audiophile, and uses his computer to those ends all the time.
I also get it because, as I think we can all agree, a camera pointed at an instructor and a whiteboard or blackboard can make for a far-from-compelling viewing experience.
Remembering Vietnam and "Hearts and Minds"
Even those of us old or informed enough to recognize the phrase "hearts and minds" may not know that this still-popular expression was popularized by British General Gerald Templer in the context of counter-insurgency in the early 1950s. It was also a popular phrase during the Vietnam War, and figured into U.S. policy all the way through the war, from Kennedy, to Johnson to Nixon.
That said, perhaps the earliest known formulation comes from Teddy Roosevelt, who is alleged to have told a young Douglas McArthur that he attributed his popularity to an ability to "put into words what is in (people's) hearts and minds, but not in their mouths." Among the more colorful, not conclusively sourced invocations of Roosevelt's wisdom is, "If you've got 'em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow."
Alas, while on-camera Zoom attendance may be required in my son's online classes for high school, they've apparently only got him by the eyeballs. Even then, he can (and sometimes does) point those eyeballs elsewhere. What to do?
Compelling Content Still Rules
As I understand it, my son's real problem is that the classroom experience just doesn't translate that well for him from the physical space he would normally inhabit in school to the well-known (and well-used) 27-inch 4K monitor on the desktop in his bedroom.
Looking at a teacher as a talking head, and a black- or whiteboard as a low-tech palimpsest works OK for him in the flesh, says he. It doesn't work at all well for him in the familiar frame of his monitor, which he uses constantly to consume cutting-edge, highly interactive and visually arresting media of all kinds. Again, I get it.
Some of his teachers, he says, put in extra effort to serve the medium. He tells me he likes the classes best where his teachers take the time to build PowerPoint (or equivalent) slide decks. Even better, says he, is when they take the time to incorporate video sources with some degree of professionalism and snap.
[Note: my son is an aspiring media auteur himself, and plans to pursue a degree in film/video/cinematography when he goes off to college in the fall of 2022.]
"If I'm being asked to watch something on a screen," he continues, "I have strong ideas on what it takes to capture and hold my attention." Don't we all have such ideas, based on a lifetime of TV consumption, and second lifetime of laboring in front of a computer screen at work?
Online Training Companies Have It Figured Out
Maybe our new President should include some funding for online classroom materials development in his pending infrastructure bill? I'm not kidding! I have to believe that online training will be a part of the way public education does business going forward, in keeping with the more widespread post-pandemic trend to offer remote access to work, school, and other activities.
I've taken enough online learning classes from the likes of PluralSight, Coursera, Microsoft and others to be convinced that a compelling and attention-grabbing online education experience is more than possible — it's actually achievable. But our underpaid and overworked teacher need tools and technology to help them master online delivery, and create (or gain access to) compelling online training materials to match.
So let's put the necessary tools and technologies into teachers' hands to make this happen. If we do, then this could help bring on a new educational Renaissance.
It could also help to redress systemic inequities in education availability and delivery — provided, of course, we can provide underserved communities with the PCs and broadband they need to use online learning to its best advantage. But that's a topic for another time. Stay tuned!