Is distance education ‘better’ or ‘as good as’ face-to-face teaching and learning? Is there a place for it in our educations system moving forward? On what basis are we making such decisions and in whose interests are they being made?
It seems I’ve spent many hours in recent weeks participating in or contributing to discussions, forums and webinars on the theme ‘lessons from lockdown’ – in which researchers and educators are seeking to capture the essence of what the experience of teachers, learners and parents/whānau was during the period of school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The themes are becoming increasingly familiar, and I have blogged about some of these previously.
The prompting thought for this post stems from a number of recent conversations where a more formal ‘evaluation’ of what happened is being considered – based mostly on capturing the voice of the various groups of stakeholders (learners, teachers, school leaders, parents/whānau etc.) and assembling rafts of both qualitative and quantitative data to help ‘make sense’ of what worked and what didn’t during this period of ‘remote learning’.
Such evaluative activity is a good thing, in my view. We should always be considering what we can learn from experiences such as the lockdown, as this has demonstrated in very practical terms what is possible when the existing structures and systems that our current schooling system is built around are removed. No need for ‘hypotheticals’ here, this was a real-life ‘petrie dish’ experience from which we can learn a lot.
My only hesitation is that there is a risk of falling into a trap of failing to understand the ‘reference points’ we may be using to form our opinions and judgements we may make. I see three areas of concern:
- Binary Thinking
The sudden shift from classroom teaching to teaching and learning from home brought the practices associated with remote teaching and learning into sharp focus – we couldn’t do one so we had to embrace the other. This ‘either-or’ thinking needs to be outed and identified as not helpful as we look forward. The lessons from lockdown should help inform the possibilities around making changes to our system and the experiences of learners that are not binary, but instead open the opportunity for more dialogue and consideration around the concept of ‘blended’ or ‘hybrid’ models of education.
- Confusing remote teaching with distance education
It has to be reinforced that what was experienced during the lockdown was not, in a pure-ist form, distance education. It was an emergency response to a crisis situation that involved bridging the gap between teachers and students caused by the sudden closure of schools. While it is true to say that many of the solutions adopted by schools and the system as a whole bore characteristics of distance education, they lacked the level of intentional design, informed by decades of theory and research that is characteristic of quality distance educational practice. While there is a field of thought that it is possible for evaluation to be carried out by independent evaluators who don’t need the specialist knowledge about the discipline they’re evaluating, a lack of critical understanding that only someone deeply immersed in that discipline has can lead to many inaccurate assumptions being made that may influence the evaluator’s conclusions.
- Using face-to-face as the ‘gold standard’ benchmark
In almost every conversation I’ve participated in I’ve noted the tendency to use the experience of the familiar, face-to-face contexts as the reference point, and comparisons made against that when evaluating the impact of the remote teaching strategies. This is entirely understandable, as this is what we are most used to and where our thinking about what works stems from. It seems a common practice for both evaluators and researchers to implicitly accept a known point of reference to help make sense of something new. The potential issue here is that our assumptions are that our current system ‘works’, and therefore, anything different must have to demonstrate that it is at least as good as that – or better. This is simply not the case. Our current system may work for some, but it certainly doesn’t for all. Same for distance education – it’s not a case of having to demonstrate whether it works – there are decades of research to suggest it does. The more important questions are, “who does it work for?”, and “in what contexts does it work?”
A critical starting point for me when thinking about what we can learn from lockdown is not to ask simply ‘what worked and what didn’t?’, but to delve deeper into understanding, from the experience of those involved, what might help inform the way we design our approaches to teaching and learning, and the design of the structures and systems that address some of the very real issues and concerns that exist in our current model, and will help us then design better ways of working into the future.
In their recent paper titled The research we have is not the research we need, Thomas Reeves and Lin Lin quote Geoff Mulgan who said…
There is incredible potential for digital technology in and beyond the classroom, but it is vital to rethink how learning is organised if we are to reap the rewards.
Their article goes on to examine the issue we have with so much ‘research’ being generated nowadays about the benefits of digital technology in education, and the claims about online programmes that are ‘proven’ to be effective by scientific research, when, in fact, the evidence for such claims is very weak or even non-existent. Too often they are simply claims made on the basis of a single case of apparent successful implementation for example.
The problem is that, in the current environment where research is linked to one-year windows of funding opportunity, researcher endeavours have too often focusing on isolated studies on new things rather than focusing on significant problems that impact the very structures and systems we have in place to support our work.
We need to focus less on ‘things’ and more on ‘problems’ Reeves and Lin conclude. Perhaps this is something worth bearing in mind as we continue to ponder our response to the ‘lessons from lockdown’ in our conversations.