The pandemic has caused quite a lot of turmoil in every walk of life. Things that have been taken for granted were mercilessly taken away without any definite prospect of a soon comeback. It’s up to each individual how they choose to respond to this anxiety-provoking time. Some have accepted the pillow challenge, others have started reconsidering their whole lives. And everyone has the right to (re)act the way they find most suitable for themselves (provided it doesn’t do any harm to anyone).
What has always interested me is the process of (language) education. I’ve always been vocal about the importance of education in a person’s life. It’s the education one gets, both formally and informally, that shapes one’s personality and contributes to the development of critical thinking (HOTs). So what’s happening at present? What kind of (re)actions are happening in teachers and students now that they have got into a new dimension?
I would like to share my feelings and experiences. To begin with, I’ve always emphasized the importance of socialization in the (language) education process. Basically, pre-school starts the process of socialization, which must be developed in schools as well as colleges. Learners should be prepared to build complex relationships and work in teams to solve problems in life as well as their future work environments. Thus, teaching should cease to be viewed as the act of knowledge transmission, where the learners are expected to learn something without necessarily making connections to the real-life situations. It should become mindful and purposeful. Moreover, learners should be helped develop their emotional intelligence as this skill is the one defining humans, in general. I think once these become priorities in education, learners will find the education process motivating and purposeful.
So how is it possible to make the education process motivating an engaging in time of the Covid-19 pandemic? The traditional classroom vanished into thin air one day, leaving teachers and students alike in the dark. I will not speak about the lack of digital skills in both students and teachers. (The fact that almost all of them have Facebook or Instagram accounts does not make them digitally literate!) I will not mention the issues some might have related to the internet connection or the necessary equipment. (Moldova is still the poorest country in Europe!)
What I’d really like to focus on is whether or not offline education can be equaled to online education. I have always doubted it. I can say that it can never do it, as such a process can be called many names, yet I don’t think one of them would actually be ‘education’. Do you think that ‘hiding’ behind screens contributes to the development of soft skills as well as emotional intelligence? I’m afraid it doesn’t. I will only be happy to be proved wrong.
I would like to specify once again: I’m not against integrating technology into the process of education. The key word here is ‘integrating’, it is not replacing. Technology can’t replace education. It can replace, for example, a knowledge transmission channel, but never the person. (I wonder if in one hundred years’ time it will still be the case. I don’t know why people so desperately look for intelligence replacement, why such a necessity for artificial intelligence… Isn’t it obvious that the moment one finds a substitute to the brain work, the brain stops developing, it stops creating complex constructs needed for critical thinking?)
Yet, Covid-19 happened and the people stayed home… and teachers and students had to do something about it. And they did. Something. They’re still doing it. Yet, I don’t think there’s much excitement on both sides. I cannot say that I hate what I’m doing right now like the author in the article I Love Teaching, But I Hate Whatever This Is. Yet, it resonated with the feelings I’m experiencing at present. Just like the author of the article, ‘I’ve never resented going to work because teaching has always felt like home to me’. I might have complained about various situations I’d come across (sometimes totally unrelated to teaching), yet, I’ve never been sorry for having taken up teaching as a career. I can’t say that online teaching feels like home. It feels more like a temporary shelter one has to take on one’s way home to protect oneself from danger. Thus, the idea that this is not something definite is quite soothing. It actually gives the energy one needs to go on and do one’s best under the existing conditions.
It is true that on the internet one can find quite a lot of useful information concerning how to make online teaching engaging and motivational. I can say it’s always been there, actually. There have always been so many online tools one can use in the process of education. Yet, they were considered only when the teacher thought appropriate to integrate them in a lesson/course.
The current context is different. The teacher has no choice now. The teacher must rely exclusively on technology to do his/her job, and to make his/her learners feel like home nonetheless. There are useful tips shared online. These are good tips one should definitely consider while designing the online education process. Yet, one should similarly be prepared that they will not create the same results as offline education does. (Again and again, education is more than just a teacher transmitting knowledge to a group of passively engaged learners! If education were that, then online learning would be a huge success! Moreover, teachers might not even be needed at all!)
My virtual classrooms usually look like this. I rely on videoconferencing as the substitute for synchronous learning, and on google classroom as the substitute for asynchronous learning. To my mind, this can be the optimal solution to the present situation. It helps create the illusion of (inter)contentedness. Yet, an illusion is just an illusion. Александра Матрусова debunked some of the myths related to online education, starting with the myth that it is extremely easy to change from offline to online learning, and ending up with the myth that teachers are just reluctant to embrace the change. The passage I particularly liked in the article (it immediately resonated with me, as I always emphasize this point) is that the human brain develops more actively when people are interacting/communicating face-to-face (i.e. socializing). Unfortunately, by simply sitting in front of the computer, one’s brain cannot make neural connections necessary for the elaboration of complex constructs the way it does in face-to-face contexts. It doesn’t mean that the brain doesn’t develop at all. Yet, as our intellection (мышление) is primarily social, it can’t be developed outside a social context. Virtual classrooms can create only the semblance of an educational context. Maybe this semblance contributes to what has been labeled as ‘Zoom fatigue‘.
My fatigue is also due to the fact that I don’t get feedback. I can’t see the learners’ faces (if they all turn on their cameras we might end up with delays or connection disruptions). In addition, they might not even want to have their cameras on, a wish that needs to be acknowledged and respected. There are delays when it comes to answers they give to questions (and the delays are more than 1.2 seconds). One more remark, they might even disconnect, claiming later on that the connection was very poor just not to get involved in an activity. Learners are learners. Then, it’s practically impossible to make them work in pairs or groups. Don’t tell me about creating shared Google docs or something of the kind. I’ve done that. I’m talking from experience. That’s why I said ‘practically impossible’. It’s again the semblance of pair-work or group-work. And it works best if done not during the class.
The point is that distance learning cannot replace face-to-face education. How is it possible to develop one’s social skills when the only place for interaction is the computer screen? Yet, I do realize that technology has become part of our lives, and it won’t go anywhere. Hence, we have to look for viable solutions of integrating technology into the education process so that it helps develop our learners’ 21st century skills. If, however, we choose to rely on technology exclusively, this is rather impossible to attain.
Things will get back to normal, a new normal, a different one, as every experience shapes our way of being, thinking, and (re)acting. I think, we’re changing, we’re growing. Change, no matter how painful it is initially, is something that contributes to our growth and development provided we embrace the change and THINK critically.