HEWN, No. 345

"I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me" -- The Mountain Goats

Shortly after the inauguration in January 2017, I gave a talk titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump.” I anticipated that education technology — the impulse for pervasive data collection and analysis — would be wielded by the new administration to extend surveillance in dangerous ways. It would be used to identify and punish undocumented students and their families. I worried too about transgender students and how identities get hard-coded into student information systems. I worried about students the algorithms deemed “at risk” (or “a risk”). I worried about the ways in which the power of counting and compelling students via technology was now not only in the hands of unscrupulous companies but in the hands of an unscruplous President and his cronies.

And here we are. On top of all that I predicted (was I wrong?), we now face this new crisis, another new disaster involving Trump and ed-tech.

I understand that many people want to be able to maintain the continuity of their lives and just shift everything online. I am telling you right now: that is not going to be possible. It is not going to be possible for teachers. It is not going to be possible for students. I don’t say this to minimize the work — the very, very hard work — that many teachers, instructional designers, and support staff are putting into their preparations. And I deeply appreciate the generosity I’ve seen this week as those with experience teaching online have shared advice and resources.

I am much less impressed, I admit, with the “generosity” of ed-tech companies who are making their products free to schools, who are inundating our inboxes with their marketing pitches. I am much less impressed with the sharing of long lists of educational software, with little concern for student privacy and security, with little concern for accessibility, with little concern for digital equity — who has access to a laptop, to high-speed broadband at home. I’m worried about students eating. I’m worried about families making ends meet, paying the bills, maintaining a roof over everyone’s heads. I really don’t want to hear about your company's offers of “virtual solutions, including pre-designed digital assessments.” I don’t want to hear about your company’s proctoring tools and how you can make sure students aren’t cheating. Ed-tech in a time of Trump indeed.

It’s easy, I think — particularly for those who work in, with, and around a lot of technology — to believe that this moment calls for a technological solution. But what we are facing isn’t solvable through a “pivot” to the cloud. You might have all the equipment — all the licenses to all the products and all the content lined up. Your students might have all the equipment to watch, listen, chat back. But we are in the middle of a global health crisis, a global economic crisis; we are in the middle of millions of individual health crises, millions of individual economic crises. This is not going to be a great time for teaching and learning, no matter how carefully you’ve orchestrated your online courses. (And with the lead-up time a lot of folks are getting? Things aren’t really going to be carefully orchestrated. Let's be realistic.)

I know that there are lots of people — many readers of this newsletter, I imagine — who will insist that online education can be done well. And yes, there are plenty of online educators who do do right by their students. They create a digital community where students can learn and thrive. But research suggests that’s typically not what happens. Most students do worse online than they do in face-to-face classes; and that's particularly true for the most vulnerable students — for Black and Latino students, for those with lower GPAs, for low-income students, for younger students. Most students do worse online than they do in face-to-face classes; and that’s under “normal” circumstances. These are not normal circumstances.

I don’t think it's right or fair to ask parents to replicate school at home. I don’t think it’s right or fair to ask teachers or students to replicate school online either. Not replicate. Not right now. Yes, I understand that the kids need to have something to do. They need routines. They need whatever normalcy we can provide. We all do. But I think it’s asking too much to expect too much structured teaching and learning to happen in the coming months.

This school year? Folks, it’s gonna be a wash.

It seems unlikely that this is going to be a short interruption, and frankly I don’t know that we can expect schools to re-open this academic year. There won’t be senior prom. There won’t be commencement. And that sucks. There won’t be AP exams or SATs. (There better not be, you vultures over at the College Board.) There won’t be standardized testing — I mean, come on — but there are going to be some gaps in what students learned. It’s possible there won’t be enough “seat time” for accreditation, enough “student-teacher interaction” for authorization. Sports eligibility could be in question. Scholarships could be in jeopardy. Financial aid might get screwy. Students will want refunds on their fees. Parents will want refunds on room-and-board. We’re going to have to be flexible with “the rules” here.

We are going to have to be patient and flexible with one another. I know that my anxiety over the past few weeks has been just barely contained, and I’ve broken down in a couple of loud crying jags (and some quieter ones in the shower). And I am used to working from home. Social distancing? Man, that’s my life. But I am finding it very, very hard to get anything done with this sense of impending doom. Once the doom hits? Damn. So please, you can stop already with your clever idea that fourth graders are going to log in to a webinar every day for class.

The question right now for educators should not be “what technology do I need to move my class online?” The question should be “what am I doing to support my students (and my colleagues and my family)?” Start there — not with tech but with compassion.

So much of good teaching is about caring, and yet the labor of caring is often invisible or at least unacknowledged — particularly in higher education. The burden of caring in this current crisis is going to fall particularly hard on a precarious, exhausted workforce. This a time for solidarity. Be kind to one another. Check in with one another. And good grief, wash your hands. But really. Shut up about Zoom already.

This week’s Columbidae is the Ducula goliath — the giant imperial pigeon, which at about 20 inches in length, is one of the largest tree-dwelling pigeons. (Image credits)

Yours in struggle,

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