Why online education is failing

In 1994 I went to the US to know more about the integration of technology as a tool in schools. There was a considerable movement claiming the future of education was technology. As an engineer and education researcher, I was curious about how the world of computers and software could change education. 

In my experience, most of the educational models in the world still living in the frame of the system created to supply workers to the fabric in the Industrial Revolution. My impression was evident when we observed the distribution of the students’ table in the room or the authoritarian posture of the teacher in the classroom space, and the subjects that were considered essential to be learned: writing and maths. No other topic was so worshipped, persuaded and transformed in a monster as maths. How many times children hadn’t listened if they were right in maths and writing they had would have the best opportunities in life.

The school model at the beginning of the 20th century was a breed between the assembly line and the military. Repeat and obey were the sacrosanct motto. The fabric needed people capable of reading manuals, following orders and understanding numbers. That was what the schools, the public schools have begun to give to society. The slow learner, the one who had disabilities, the weak were banned to hospices, sanatoriums, or poverty.

At the end of the 20th century, a new tool appeared, many taking places the people who were trained to obey and repeat, others much more advanced requiring the understanding of science. Service become an industry, and creativity and independence were other skills required. These new skills were in a short offer, but the technology was helping to create a new way to learn. That was the reason I was flying to the US in 1994; I wanted to bring the latest model to schools in Brazil where I lived.

My first impression was of disappointment what I had collected was software trying to replicate the same methodology used in class: listening, repeat and test. Few creative options were classified as ‘games’, and relegated to the second plan in the classroom. Schools were scared. Teachers were battling for their jobs and respect for their knowledge. An entire class of professionals linked to education saw the new option as a threat, not as a tool. 

Schools all around to world were put between a crossroad: use technology or lose students. It was a matter of survival for headmasters, trustees and private school owners. What did they do? If you can avoid having computers and software in schools, you tame them. How? Just create a new disciple: ‘technology’ as some called it; others opted by a more futuristic name as ‘robotics’, and few, more traditional, called it ‘computation’. Done; now, they can control how, when, and most importantly, they can test children capacity to use it. It wasn’t a tool anymore; it was one more subject.

Refusing to accept this reality, I implement inside a school one project where we used technology as a tool to learn or express something that was learned. We worked with projects that touch the children mind and the question they had about the world where they lived and how to understand it. It wasn’t a technology class. We did not teach then Word or Excel, either programming or ‘technological’ words. We used all this to learn about how to make a better way to transport people – from research, planning and implementations. Some, preferred use videocams to create films where their knowledge was expressed, others create books – physical books – others prefer to dive in something more complex like establishing a company to sell lollies when the summer comes. Each kid used together most of the required skills to have a critical, healthy, independent, and creative life and the teachers were there to help them to acquire the new skills necessary to achieve the goals. One teacher said the new name for teachers should be consultants. The most important lessons learned were working with others – team working – communicating ideas, planning resource and above all, being creative to solve a real problem they had on their hands.

It was a success. I had many children developing skills that previous teachers hadn’t seen them capable of doing so. It was a revolution, a revolution that couldn’t live for long. Teacher of other classes complained about the lack of tests, the lack of punishment, the lack of organisation, the lack of an adult dictating what should be learned. The disappointment was my first feeling, then an idea. Why not let my student try the tests they are so keen on believing it was a form of proving their methodology was better than mine? In the end, the class I was teaching and following – two more people (a teacher and a technology geek) and I – were submitted to the formal tests.

The children were relaxed and happy to accept the challenge. They seated for a week doing tests after tests. Language, maths, science, geography, history, and English were put before them in the traditional form. The teachers then took all the testes and compared with the other students who had followed the conventional approach. The students in my class graded 40 – 50% higher than the others in all subjects. Language, maths and science had top grades, but history and geography were above the mean line as well.

I had proved my point when not only the grades were higher, but the quality of the answerers was much more mature and elaborated. The students had learned by themselves. I proposed another challenge, what about giving them testes from other years? One year above or even three? Again, their grades were equal or superior to those of the traditional students.

The students were happy with the result, and I was pleased because the experience was a success. I used the results as course work in the Capella University in the US. The teacher was impressed by how I had managed to make a suitable environment for children to learn by themselves with independence, creativity, curiosity, and self-discipline. The experiment did not continue. Many teachers complained that it was impossible to have a class in the format I had suggested, headteachers complain about the cost and the number of staff required. Soon, I was asked to fit or leave. I left in 2000 all the schools where I was working after had tested my approach to education with children from 1 year and a half old to 18 years old. Trying to bring more teacher to support the new model proposed, I taught teacher in a postgraduation university course.

Even after abandoning the field, I continue to follow the relationship between technology and education. I attempted to study an online course only to be disappointed again. The ‘expertise’ in education online had made an abomination using technology to recreate the class teaching style. The formality, the listening, do it, repeat and tests were all over the course. I gave up.

During years I wondered if the technology one day would evolve to offer the opportunity to create a more friendly, independent, ambitious way to learn. I had hoped my little experience would be replicated and embraced by online schools and universities.

Twenty-four years after that day in 1994, my son had begun a university online. It was one that had been working for decades with long-distance learning. However, I was surprised by how the changes were minimal. Oh, they had videos, virtual laboratories, tutorials; however, the way to learn was the same: read, listen to, answer questions, test and repeat. Where is the interactivity? Where is space for people to bring their personal experience and information? Each exercise hadn’t any form of interaction with the teacher or colleagues. There wasn’t room to share real-life experiences and each work made wasn’t commented or follow-up in an instructive way.

Each video should be interactive in some way – it wasn’t. The forum was confusing and difficult to follow – why not open files to each topic being discuses? – the virtual laboratory was interesting but need lots of improvement to make the experience something real – and the relationship between tutors and students was so formal and rigid that sometimes you looked to be part of a military school.

Most time, the testing results – that I think should be a guide helping the students with the topics they not had grasped right what should have been learned – again, the corrections were vague and pointed to the “book” page (site topic) where you should have found the correct answer. It was terrible to read the comments and know the student in question knew much more than the teacher was capable of evaluating in a five-question questionnaire.

There are so many ways to improve and bring part of the social interaction to online education. However, nobody wants to take it seriously; nobody is open to change an ancient and archaic system that is not more and more proving been inefficient to the real world we are living now. Teacher, headmasters, universities all around the world still trying to fit the blackboard and the chalk in the technology refusing change the paradigm from the traditional school. Learn is a personal action that we make collectively, even if you think machines are cold and soulless, people are behind them. The real change will come. Pandemics probably will be the new normal in a world suffering from destruction and climate change. To save our planet changes in the way we live, make a choice, learn and work (when work still a thing) will be in the Zoom improved rooms and connections between people. The children of today are not prepared for this future either are the teacher and the system. Who will be the first to step in and change it? 

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