The Learning Bug

Well, Spring Break has come to a close, with distance learning, it doesn’t quite feel the same, for both good and ill.  At about the time of this writing (shortly after 8:30 AM EST), I’d be about twenty minutes into an AP US History class under normal circumstances.  Instead, I’m sipping coffee and grading student responses to a pre-recorded lecture (on George F. Kennan’s containment policy) as they roll in.

I’ve found that, personally, I’m far more productive and focused since the transition to distance learning.  The incentives are in place for me to be so, in that I can just laser-focus in on building out online versions of my classes.  I’ve also been adjunct teaching online for a local technical college for about five years now, so I’ve gotten good at the management side of it.  Indeed, most of distance learning, after the creation of the actual content, is shepherding students through it.

That’s the other key to my productivity:  I know that the more idiot-proof and user-friendly I make the process, the less confusion for the students.  That also makes for less work for me on the back-end, which requires a good bit of planning and work on the front-end.  I pretty much stay at my computer from about 7:30 AM to 3:30 or 4 PM EST most days, so I can facilitate any student queries as they arrive, but the workflow is more flexible—instead of being locked-in to a series of hour-long performances, I’m able to complete tasks in a more organic fashion.

I’ve written about all of these aspects of distance teaching quite a bit already from the teacher’s perspective.  I’m also aware that my enjoyment of this style of teaching is, at least among my own colleagues, unique.  My style of classroom teaching is geared towards easy porting to an online format; my colleagues with more creative or active styles of teaching have had a greater struggle adapting to the change, as the “distance” in “distance learning” inherently conflicts with a dynamic classroom setting.

But what of the students?  How are they doing?  There are obvious pitfalls to online learning, namely the potential for cheating.  I’ve opted for the “legalization” approach—like avid potheads and libertarians who argue that legalizing everything will make the activity not-bad, I’m allowing students to use notes, study guides, etc., on assessments like quizzes and tests.  That has cut down on the anxiety, to be sure, and removes a complicated question:  how do you prevent cheating?

If I were doing this setup from the get-go—rather than transitioning to it hastily at nearly the end of the academic year—I’d invest more time in figuring out ways to offer assessments that prevented or blocked potential cheating more.  But I’m a firm believer of not sacrificing the good-enough to the perfect:  you have to be practical, and pick your battles.

All that said, the academic malfeasance doesn’t seem much more prevalent with online learning than with face-to-face learning.  Indeed, I’ve found that the students that had the most trouble with plagiarism, submitting work on time, and showing up to class (which is now the same as simply doing their work) are the same ones that struggle now.  With a few exceptions, the transition to a different mode of delivering educational content has not really changed the student.  Hardworking strivers are still hardworking strivers.  Slackers are still slackers.  The students that would come to me before quizzes and tests with questions still e-mail me now.

That’s highly anecdotal, of course, but it suggests that for all of our pedagogical tinkering, students are what they are.  Yes, yes—there are many cases where a great teacher can turn a kid around.  I’ve done it:  a troubled young ultra-progressive seventh grader who believed he was transgender and bisexual who, through a combination of my loving instruction, his parents’ support, and Sargon of Akkad, came to become a red-pilled heterosexual centrist—maybe even right-of-centrist—by the time he graduated.  But he still struggles to turn in his work, as far as I can tell, in college.

My point is not to give up on students, but that we’re probably a tad optimistic in the belief that simply by changing the variables and getting the mode of delivery correct, we’re magically going to turn D+ slackers into A+ academic superstars with an admissions letter from Harvard.

Now, to contradict that very conclusion, I will argue that The Age of The Virus has been beneficial in that it’s gotten kids out of the confines of the classroom into the best environment for learning:  the home.  I know for many parents it’s been difficult managing their children, but now that it’s the “new normal”—to use a well-worn phrase—it seems families are embracing this unexpected time together.

My local newspaper ran a photo essay of folks in a Florence, South Carolina suburb enjoying their Sunday activities.  One family has created a potato garden, “one of many completed projects the family has accomplished over the last weeks.”  I’ll wager those kids are learning more about horticulture, agriculture, and hard work from planting that garden than they would from an hour-long biology lesson about the life cycle of the spud.

There’s a scene in one of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels in which a dilettantish scholar discusses his extensive research into the origins of humanity.  After reviewing all of the scholarship, he wagers that human life originated on Earth, one of the hundreds of millions of planets in the galaxy-wide Empire.  Another character asks him why he doesn’t visit Old Earth himself to investigate the claims.  The scholar says something to the effect of “Why would I?  Everything I need to know has already been researched by others; I can take their word for it.”

That scene really hit me when I read the books several years ago.  It’s been my attitude before.  But anyone that’s taken a field trip to, say, Fort Sumter—who has seen the fort in the flesh—has a much better sense for the conflict that launched the American Civil War than someone who has merely read about it in a textbook.  You can see the fort from Charleston.  You get a sense for its isolation in the harbor, and of the scale of the Confederate bombardment.

We’ve been cooped up in classrooms a long time.  There’s a lesson for me here, too, as I’ve been too quick to cling to the abstractions of academia.  Let’s get out there and learn stuff the old-fashioned way:  by doing!

4 thoughts on “The Learning Bug

  1. Couple thoughts. Most licensing tests are open book, as we used to say, and for a very good reason, there is a huge amount of information that one rarely uses, one mainly needs to learn where it is. There’s a lot in all fields that is like that. In history, we need some sort of conception of the timeline, that the Greeks came before the Romans say. But most don’t need to know the tactical details of Salamis, only that it marked the beginning of the rise of Europe.

    Your observation that students don’t change much depending on the format, is spot on, and fairly obvious. Most of us do better in things that interest us, and frankly, I suspect I would have done better in distance learning, high school was boring, except football and basketball, of course. And my work showed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I agree—far more important to know the general timeline, and to know where to look for more specifics, than trying to store impossible amounts of information. Open book testing seems to calm the kids down a good bit, too, although the clever ones will still study and plan ahead.

      You’re absolutely right—I excelled in history, music, and English in high school, as well as the related fields. I struggled in Germany, applied sciences, and math (although now I think I’m pretty good at mathematics). Why? I liked the former set of subjects, and not the latter—and I wasn’t a particularly driven student. I was spoiled with my moderate intellect, too (that sounds like a humble-brag, but it’s not meant to be): I was able to coast for so long, it made buckling down and studying in subjects I did not enjoy very difficult.

      I think many students would benefit from distance learning and home-schooling. I do believe many students want that social interaction and all the fun activities of school, but those are secondary—or should be—to the real point of school.

      Of course, in education, we’re NEVER supposed to suggest that one student is more or less capable than any other, even though it’s patently true. I agree we should never give up on a student (with one caveat: those students that are constant disruptions and simply refuse to conform to the standards of a productive learning environment), and some students really surprise you with their progress, but it’s usually pretty clear which students have the drive and secret sauce, and which don’t.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yep, and in real life, as well. By lunch on the first day I always had a pretty good idea if a new helper was going to be around beyond probation. It wasn’t brains, or even aptitude (both within reason). It had more to do with integrity than anything. If you were dumb, but honest, at least in good times, we could find something for you to do. Einstein level smart but not – well I never had the time to watch you closely enough, and if I had, I could just as well do it myself.


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