The first week of Distance Learning has ended. People ask: How’s it going? It is hard to say. “Good, I guess,” is my default response. “Good” because it has not been “bad.” A “bad” week would have been terribly stressful and confusing and fearful; I have felt none of that. But the guesswork involved in answering that common question lies in the fact that I only know how I feel, since I am distanced from those with whom I am charged with teaching.
As I’ve said: I have no idea what is going on on the other end of the line. I don’t know where students are working, when they are working, how they are working, what they are working on. The only information I receive is inferred by the few comments I receive in Google Classroom replies and in the few questions I receive in emails and in the notifications I receive when students resolve my comments in Google Docs. There is so much guesswork; nothing is clear.
On the fifth day of Distance Learning, I had very little to do: aside from the two video-conferences with colleagues, I had less than 10 emails from students. From which I conclude that either I have been appropriately clear in my Distance Learning directions and instructions or that very few students are doing the things I am asking them to do. Again, I do not know.
But I am okay with not knowing; I did not expect this to be the same as teaching in the traditional way, nor do I anticipate that it ever will be. And no one should. We are using technology that was not created for this purpose.
A question I have had for a week or so is this: if such a pandemic had afflicted the world, our nation and community when I was in middle school, more than 30 years ago, would schools have been closed?
Yes, if public officials had prohibited the congregating of groups larger than 10, obviously. But, then, would we have just foregone schooling? What would have been the requirements or expectations of the quarantined student and teacher 35 years ago, when Google was just a number and not among the few companies flourishing amidst this near national lockdown? I am not sure.
But one thing I can say with certainty is that whatever that would have been would have required a lot of phone-calling, which would have taken a lot of time.
One of the problems with technology is the efficiency with which it allows us to change the direction of group events. For example: when, say, I was in middle school, if the weather forecast was calling for a chance of rain, a sports coach would have had to make several if not many phone calls – which could take up to 20 minutes, perhaps – if they wanted to cancel practice. So, if the weather looked bad but not really bad then most likely the coach would choose to plow through a practice in bad weather as opposed to spending 20 minutes making phone calls.
But, today, that same coach can call off practice in the time it takes to compose an email, less than a few minutes. Which, I believe, has led society to call off events much quicker and more often than we did in the past; I can remember numerous days in the past year, for example, when school was canceled due to snow and I never even had to shovel.
So the technology we have today has made it easy to make the decision in light of the threat of the coronavirus to close schools (which is the right decision) but not to discontinue schooling. But, the problem is that that decision is based upon using technology not designed for Distance Learning. Google (and other platforms like Edmodo which was created 10 years ago or so) did not create its Classroom and Meet platforms, and Screencastify and Zoom were not created, for teachers to teach and students to learn at a distance from one another; they were created to supplement traditional education, not replace it.
So, this attempt at what we are doing is going to be far from perfect, at least in the beginning, because the tools were not designed specifically for its purpose, like using a butter knife when what we really need is a screwdriver. So we all need to be patient, and be okay with what is happening, and to be doing our best. And to learn and live through an event that has truly changed the way and the direction of the world.