Opinion | Schools aren’t going to change in the ways we need them to

By Dalia Maeroff, Senior Staff Columnist

COVID-19 has been stressful for everyone, but it has been enormously stressful for the world’s students.

For the first time in hundreds of years, the general public’s perception of a classroom has changed from a physical room in a school building to the bedroom, living room or dining room of the student’s home. Classrooms are now in the places that we used to use for leisure, and education occurs through a screen, even though that is one of the worst ways for the human brain to learn.

Many seem to think the way schools operate and the way teachers teach will be revolutionized by the pandemic and remote learning technology. It’s a reasonable assumption — during the pandemic, schools are finally seeing the rising public support and appreciation they need, and parents have taken more of an interest in their children’s education than ever.

More people are advocating for a personalized home schooling or remote learning experience to remain an option after COVID-19. Microsoft — which hosts Teams, one of the largest online learning platforms used during the pandemic — is looking into how people can “use technology to rethink education.” Although increasing the presence of technology in the classroom seems like an improvement, it is actually detrimental to how we learn.

Remote learning has many disadvantages. Students encounter difficulty staying motivated, keeping a stable internet connection, getting immediate feedback, staying in contact with instructors and interacting with peers. Many students with special needs, learning difficulties and mental illnesses are struggling greatly from the normalization of remote learning. Remote learning does not allow for the learning of practical knowledge, and it isn’t suitable for the development of social and communication skills. These are all reasons why we shouldn’t adapt remote learning as a permanent alternative to in-classroom learning when it’s an option again.

There are advantages for some, however. It is a safer and more accessible environment for those who are immunocompromised or those with disabilities, it saves time and money with a lack of a commute and it allows for a self-paced learning environment. One of the greatest benefits is the ability to learn self-discipline, which can improve college readiness. For teachers, classroom management is easier, as they don’t have to worry as much about being disrespected by their students or altercations between students, and they don’t have to worry about students talking out of turn.

But these advantages aren’t universal. Research shows that online learning is only effective when students have consistent access to a stable internet connection and a computer, and if teachers have received specific training for remote learning. Unfortunately, many students around the United States do not have access to the technology required for remote learning, and many public schools cannot afford to train their teachers to aid in online instruction. Many of these students without access to technology are often students of color and students below the poverty line. Students are especially at the risk of chronic absenteeism — meaning they miss at least 15 days of school in a year and are at extreme risk of falling behind — when on remote learning platforms. In addition, studies on virtual and home schooling have shown to only work well for those who have sufficient resources available.

There are more obvious reasons as to why we should decrease reliance on remote learning post-pandemic, such as the dependencies on technology for knowledge recall and the lack of information processing that comes from taking notes on a laptop rather than by hand. Beyond the disadvantages and unequal advantages of remote learning, there is a deeper, psychological reason as to why we shouldn’t bring even more technology into the classroom.

Learning is inherently a socially linked behavior, and people learn best when they are actively involved in the learning process. This is embedded in thousands of years of human evolution. The introduction of technology into our classrooms is further distancing students from the ways we should be learning. Babies demonstrate this the second they first learn language. In comparing how babies pick up language from just a screen to how they learn when with their peers and other humans, research shows that learning greatly improves when other people are present, and learning decreases when other people are absent.

Among college students, test scores go down when they use electronic devices in the room due to high levels of distraction and lowered attention levels. PowerPoints lose the attention of students quickly — despite the fact that they are widely used by professors for notes and presentations — as they make it easy for students to zone out and copy notes without processing what they read. A study done by Dr. Raymond Pasi, an instructor at George Washington University, supports this. He found that students scored significantly lower on tests with electronic devices in the room, even if students weren’t using them. According to Pasi, this is because the classroom environment is changing, from a social environment to one akin to a waiting room in which people don’t interact.

During COVID-19, our school systems are completely reliant on technology for learning. This is detrimental for students, and not only because they have to learn in a remote environment that makes learning more difficult. The responsibility now falls on the student or the student’s parents to manage their own digital lives and temptations to check their notifications. Technology clearly makes it more difficult for students to learn.

Students do not need the addition of more technology into the education system. Learning must become more social and hands-on post-pandemic. We cannot move further toward an automated learning environment that is not conducive to learning.

Dalia Maeroff writes primarily about issues of psychology, education, culture and environmentalism. Write to her at [email protected].