One of the themes of this newsletter so far has been to advocate or at least defend well-constructed online learning environments. I thought this week, instead of hearing about this from me, my readers might want to hear from others.
Eric Mazur is a professor of Physics at Harvard, who, like most of us, had to scramble to put his courses online for the remainder of the spring semester last year. Over the summer of 2020, he took the time to redesign his course for a fully remote administration of the course. Looking back on the year recently, he reached the conclusion that online teaching is better than what he was able to do in the classroom before. And, given that conclusion, he asks, is it unethical to teach in the classroom now?
I have, of course, suggested that online learning environments may be more suitable to older age groups, and particular subjects. It may be that math and the sciences lend themselves particularly well to online learning environments. There is so much research that needs to be done to find the subjects and portions of courses that are best suited to this form of teaching and learning.
But Prof. Mazur has become an uninhibited evangelist for online learning:
I have never been able to offer a course of the quality that I’m offering now. I am convinced that there is no way I could do anything close to what I’m doing in person. Online teaching is better than in person.
I encourage you to view this video of Professor Mazur in which he explains what he did in his course this past year at Harvard. He includes data that he collected from student performance and student evaluations, comparing these data points prior to the pandemic and after. In all areas, his students did better, and appreciated the course more, when it was presented in its online form. He asks a pretty strong question: given what he knows now, is it unethical for him *not* to teach online in the future?
Another powerful argument in favor of online learning was expressed in an article published a few days ago in the New York Times. Entitled “Don’t Kill Remote Learning. Black and Brown Families Need It,” by RiShawn Biddle. In this article, Mr. Biddle argues that because the pandemic hit black and brown families the hardest, and remote learning options helped them.
Eliminating remote learning, which many of these families support, exacerbates already-existing educational and health care inequities.
Mr. Biddle explains that “polling has consistently shown support for remote learning among nonwhite families,” for a variety of reasons - including distrust of vaccines, lower availability of vaccines, historic underfunding of public schools in minority districts, and health disparities between white and nonwhite communities. He is not arguing that we stay fully online, but rather that all families be able to decide whether to send their children to school, or enroll them in an online option.
Online learning is going through a period of backlash right now. We were unprepared in education generally for the switch to Emergency Remote Teaching last March, and too many did not invest the time and resources over the summer of 2020 that Professor Mazur did. In many cases, poor results ensued, and so now many believe that online learning is inferior. So it is good to see these defenders who understand the benefits of online teaching and learning environments, and are defending it from their multiple perspectives.
Letters of Recommendation
As I have been working on this newsletter for nearly six months now, I have spent some time getting to know other newsletters and their authors. It is quite an eclectic mix, but that is massively encouraging to me. The newsletter platforms (I use Substack), are enabling at little to no cost a method of creative expression that is heartening to see. There are many micro-niches being served. So over the second half of the year, I will occasionally be recommending other newsletters that you might want to check out. Today, I recommend The Action Cookbook newsletter, by Scott Hines. He is a father of two young children, and very thoughtful and reflective (and funny) about what that entails. And he usually includes a recipe and a drink recipe in each letter. His is a subscription newsletter, but you can subscribe for free and receive one weekly email, and get a sense of what he’s about, and decide later if you want to subscribe.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from Ken Johnson, an art critic for The New York Times:
And what is art, after all, if not a material, time-bound thing quickened by eternal spirit?
Prof. Mazur's approach and results are insightful (and thank you for sharing the video!) However, as he acknowledges in his presentation, there are some strong socio-cultural factors at work that helped his success. And that's where I think so much of the pushback has been and for good reason.
Last spring, when the pandemic struck, I was teaching at both a public university and private high school. The difference between what the two were able to do regarding online lessons was stark: at the high school, every student was immediately provided a tablet and access to the full suite of Microsoft 365. Online lessons were done in Teams, with full video and audio and worked relatively well. By contrast, at the university, many students did not have access to Zoom or Teams, not because they didn't have a device, but because they couldn't afford the necessary bandwidth to support multiple video calls per day. Those lessons were...difficult.
But I think that contrast highlights some of the pushback against online learning: it works well when it has been planned for and when all students have equal access to the necessary tools. And that brings me to Mr. Biddle's article. He's not wrong. At all. But, I think online learning needs to be intentional and it needs to be fully supported. In other words, I think schools need to make online learning a key part of the services offered and expected, right along with school lunches, after school programs, and sports teams, especially at the elementary level where parents need the most support.
Just my two cents. Thanks as always for an informative and interesting post.