Todd Essig, Ph.D.

Todd Essig Ph.D.


The Dehumanizing Consequences of Online K-12 Education

What are we teaching kids when they're taught online?

Posted Apr 12, 2011

Online courses have lately become a hot topic in K-12 education.  As described in a recent NY Times article, spirited debates are roiling boards of ed throughout the country: Can instruction via screen rather than classroom actually work given the developmental limitations and needs of middle and high school students?

The technologists and budget-conscious administrators trumpet the unalloyed gold of cost-effective universal access to whatever it is students may need: specialized topics; advanced placement courses; and, especially, credit recovery courses for students who whiffed the first time around, or who otherwise need to grab some extra credits for graduation. 

Traditional educators, as well as the socially conscious who view this as yet another cynical Republican-led attempt to balance government budgets on the backs of the least powerful, decry making budgets more important than babies. They claim online classes are being adopted mostly because they are cheaper than those taught in-person by real live teachers. (For them, it is no coincidence that the picture in the NY Times article showed a room with only African-American students busily working away at keyboards).

And, of course, there are the psychologists and researchers who ignore the politics and value blended models that take the best from everything. "Let's do both" is the motto.

But the public debate so far misses both a crucial distinction from the psychology of learning and memory and a characteristic feature of how we relate to technologically-mediated experiences. Such public policy that ignores basic psychology will not achieve optimal results.

The missing crucial distinction is the well-known difference between declarative and procedural memory systems: the declarative system includes memory for facts, events, autobiographical stories, and the like; in contrast, the procedural houses all the unconscious physical and socio-emotional skills we routinely deploy. For example, images of learning to write while Miss Schwartz, my first grade teacher, stood over my shoulder kindly guiding my hand with her words are declarative; being able to communicate by making marks on paper is procedural—and so too is an unconscious expectation that teaching, learning, and kindness are procedures that should all go together 

The missing feature of technologically-mediated experiences is simulation entrapment, getting so taken in by the wonders of a technologically-mediated experience that one forgets one is inside what is essentially a simulation: think cavemen spearing the picture of the bison on the wall, early movie-goers leaping from their seats at the projected image of an on-rushing train, a visitor to Disney's Jungle World freaking out at the sight of an animatronic version of a dangerous animal, or educators believing a successful online course is functionally equivalent to classroom instruction just because course content was learned.

In other words, the debate undervalues to the point of ignoring it anything that is learned in classrooms over and above the content indexed by a test at the end of a class. No one seems to be asking about the potential damage done to students who take courses online when the courses work as well as they were intended to work. No one is really asking about the unintended negative consequences of successful online courses.

Except for Zach.

Zach is an unknown (except for his first name) middle or high school student who left a comment on a special NY Times response page about online courses titled  Is Online Learning as Good as Face-to-Face Learning?:

"Online classes seem like a good idea but those that take it would not be able to participate in athletics so they would most likely not get the daily recomended (sic) amount of physical activity."

Right on Zach! 

And they'd be missing out on lots more experiences as well (to cite just a few): the companionship of peers, the feeling of being invited into adult culture by a caring member of that grown-up club, a sense of social adventure from a teacher giving opportunities for personal surprise, experimenting with social conventions while staying on task, balancing empathy for others with one's own task focus, and lots more. 

Human interaction is still the gold standard and eliminating, or even minimizing, the influence teachers have on students, and students have on each other—even with all the course material learned as well as anyone would like—is a social experiment not to be conducted lightly. Like many others I'm sure, I believe I owe Miss Schwartz—and all the teachers who somehow helped me get from childhood through adolescence and into college—for much, much more than just grade appropriate lessons. They helped me grow up. 

But when we treat our kids as nothing more than vessels for properly crafted, even interactive, information rather than as fully embodied people deserving of respect then, well, that "you are an info vessel" message becomes the procedural memory lesson they learn. The potential danger of such a "you are an info vessel" message seems so clear it makes me really wonder how school administrators could ever think a screen could replace a teacher. And the answer to that question is, unfortunately, simulation entrapment which makes it so easy to ignore one is inside a simulation. Like someone leaving a realistic flight simulator complete with simulated acceleration, pressurization, and motion—maybe even with rude seat-mates, crying babies, and  bags of salty snacks—only to find themselves surprised that at the end they were right where they started, students in online classes may be getting the information but not the journey.

Our still unmet challenge, like early movie goers, is to develop habits of mind that allow us to be simultaneously inside the truly valuable experiences our technologies offer while still realizing that what's on the screen differs in profound ways from the traditional human actuality of being bodies together. Only then will we reduce the potential harm from online education.

Let me end in a spirit of full disclosure by admitting to a selfish bias. The generation to be taught at the screen rather than by a Miss Schwartz is also the generation that will eventually care for me in my dotage. And while I want them to be technologically fluent and well-educated, I also want them to have an in-their-bones (i.e., deep procedural knowledge) appreciation for human kindness and personal uniqueness. I don't want them believing technologically-mediated simulations of care are sufficient as they will if they are taught via technologically-mediated simulations of classrooms. When the time comes, I don't want the grown-up generation of current kids to take for granted cost-effective eldercare-bots as the standard of care. I want them to remember, in part because of how we educate them today, that being people together is what really matters.

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