COVID-19 e-Learning situation proves technology can never replace good teachers

A few years ago, I began to wonder when automation would reach our Chicago Public Schools classrooms—all classrooms.  With so many online resources available, I thought, “Are people thinking good teachers can be replaced by a machine?”

But this COVID-19 e-Learning situation proves that technology cannot replace good teachers or good teaching.

Soon after schools closed on March 17, parents remembered or realized that learning does not happen by itself.  We cannot not just say, “Go learn!” the same way we tell our kids to do the dishes or fold their laundry.

Teachers quickly realized e-Learning does not mean instruction continues the same was as if we were in class.

Yet, there’s been such a strong movement toward using technology in the classroom that some might wonder, “Why do you need a competent teacher if the technology is doing all the work?”

In order for students to work and learn, they need a competent teacher guiding them to and through material, helping them build positive working relationships with others, with themselves, and intervening when things don’t proceed as planned.  Most importantly, a good teacher shows students how to do something meaningful with the knowledge they gained.

Sitting students in front of a computer won’t accomplish any of those goals.

Good teachers know that posting information and assignments on Google Classroom or sending home worksheets cannot produce the same engagement we witness in a classroom.  One of my book-smart and people-smart students spoke honestly when I asked him about the CPS e-Learning plan before schools closed: “Look, if we like the class, if we’re engaged with the material, and if we value the struggle, we’re gonna do it.  If we don’t, we’re not gonna do it.”

Fair enough.

I doubt many of my students followed the e-Learning plan I prepared for the two weeks we thought we would be out.  I set up something meaningful, manageable and let it be.

However, as we move forward and remain out of school longer, I need to design instruction that builds on what we’ve done since September in a meaningful, manageable way.

On Friday, the Illinois State Board of Education released its Remote Learning Recommendations during COVID19 Emergency.  The suggested time a high-school student should devote to a class per day, according to ISBE, is 20-45 minutes.  So each high-school student with seven classes should devote between 2 1/4  to 5 1/4 hours to school work a day.

That’s fair.

Teachers, according to ISBE, need to “be available at scheduled times to answer student/caregiver questions, provide timely feedback on student work, and provide a range of meaningful learning opportunities that meet the needs of all learners during the period of closure,” among other responsibilities.

As far as grading goes, ISBE’s recommendations “are based upon the principle of no educational harm to any child . . . In place of an ‘F,’ for example, the recommendation is for an ‘incomplete’ that can be made up when the remote learning period ends.”

But good teachers know we can’t set up learning that creates an avalanche of work to be made up if or when we return to school.

Whatever learning experiences good teachers set up for students, we will take into account this unprecedented situation that demands we put students’ emotional well-being first.

Ideally, we want to create reasonable conditions where students continue to develop the five non-cognitive factors that contribute to academic performance, according to a study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research:

  • Academic Behavior: doing homework, organizing materials, participating, studying
  • Academic Perseverance: tenacity, delayed gratification, self-discipline, self-control
  • Academic Mindsets: A sense of belonging, belief in the value of academic work
  • Learning Strategies: Study skills, metacognitive strategies, self-regulated learning, goal-setting
  • Social Skills: Interpersonal skills, empathy, cooperation

But during these times, we cannot do it all.  Good teachers will fulfill their responsibilities during this difficult time by creating opportunities for our students to engage with, build on, or simply be at peace with the academic experiences we worked diligently to create the last six and a half months.

In February, when I was out of the building at a professional development event, days before students started delivering speeches—a new experience for many—one student snapped at me when I returned: “Where were you, Salazar?! We needed you?!”

I humorously explained that my absence was a way to build their independence with this assignment.  “I can’t do everything for you, ya know?” I explained.

“I know,” she said.  “But just be here! Be present.”

I keep that in mind. And while I don’t envision interacting with my classes of 30 or more students via video conferencing or anything that complicated, I will be present for my students in ways that make professional sense.

All good teachers will--because technology can never replace that trust and faith and dedication.

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