ESU alumna and PSC coordinator Erin Young tells us why she believes traditional classrooms will always have a place
Lockdown as a result of Covid-19 has disrupted accepted social norms and forced us to adapt to rapid and drastic changes. An area in which that has been particularly stark is within education, where schools were converted from the traditional to the virtual, and students are only now returning to the classroom. This has brought on much debate about the relative merits of both systems, but I remain convinced that e-learning should only be used as a temporary solution to our current circumstances, as it serves to exacerbate festering inequalities already present in education, while offering none of the advantages of in person teaching.
There is, however, some evidence to support the introduction of e-learning. Research done in the US has proposed that online learning spaces could be a way to shrink the poverty gap, particularly for demographics most disadvantaged in traditional schooling: black male students. Tony Laing of the University of Illinois proposes that virtual learning could stem the school-to-prison pipeline by ‘transcending a student’s geographical and structural barriers that have hitherto limited educational attainment’. This study remains in the theoretical, and when remote learning, as a matter of necessity, was instigated in UK schools, many accused it of widening the educational poverty gap present within our society, by penalising those with less access to technology and more poorly educated and/or time-poor parents. We have seen this occur within lockdown, with the BBC reporting that the most impoverished 20 per cent of children have received, on average, six hours fewer lessons per week than the wealthiest fifth of students. This only serves to exacerbate the pre-existing trend present in traditional learning environments. The fact that there is evidence either way of the ability of e-learning to affect the results of underprivileged students implies that it may not be the style of learning which is important. I find it difficult to believe that virtual learning could be the catch-all solution we all want to solve the question of disparity of income leading to disparity of outcome; there are too many other, and more salient, factors at play.
One of the reasons I would continue with classroom learning (when it is safe to do so), is that it is often difficult for teachers to engage the most reluctant members of their classes as it is. When virtual learning renders the enforcement of consequences for poor behaviour and eschewing of hard work even more difficult, there is a requirement for a present and interested parental support to the teacher’s efforts. If this is absent, there is very little that the teacher can do to make up the short fall as they can in the classroom. Discipline in remote learning without an engaged parent is an empty gesture. It is because of this that I fear that, without the tangible influence of teachers in the lives of students who really need them, screen based learning could serve only to harm the chances of students naturally disengaged and without conscious parental effort.
It is also important to examine the impact that a move to 100 per cent online tuition would have on parents. Despite the times in which we live proving that more work may be done remotely, this shift to virtual learning would also momentously shift the economy. As it currently stands (pre-lockdown), childcare services are, for the most part, only supplementary to the predominance of time spent at school. Were virtual learning to become universal, parents would be in a position in which there would be pressure for one of them to have to remain at home, minding younger children, and encouraging work ethic in those approaching exams. It is too complex to determine all of the consequences of this policy (including whether this increased contact with parents could, in fact, be beneficial to children) but what is certain is that this would monumentally change Britain’s workforce and have real influence on our already failing economy.
However, it seems clear that the main benefit of traditional learning, being socialisation amongst peers and the development of ‘soft skills’, is almost entirely lost in remote learning. Zoom, and other similar platforms, while useful, do not allow for the same casual social experience as being together in person. An online classroom of thirty is not an adequate space for establishing friendships or other normal aspects of socialisation for a child or teenager. If virtual learning were to become ubiquitous, we would be left the poorer as a society, with more social and mental disconnection than is now the case. Many psychologists have linked a rise in mental health issues – amongst the young in particular – to the growth and pervasiveness of social media and increased time spent online. It thus seems nonsensical to increase that time to also include school hours throughout the working week. It is personal interaction at school which leads children to realise the fullness of the lives of those around them, and become aware of the experiences of others and their points of view. One could ultimately argue that this is one of the most important aspects of going to school: becoming aware of the world and the wonderful diversity within it. Chances to become fully sensible of this would be decreased dramatically by a full move online, and as a result, I remain convinced of the virtues of the traditional classroom. While imperfect, it offers opportunities for social connection, valuable childcare, and a more personal experience of learning than Zoom ever will.