Remote learning isn’t dehumanizing education, we’ve already done that

Tegan Morton
March 20, 2020 or even the specter of an AI super-teacher can’t dehumanize education, because we’ve already dehumanized it all by ourselves.

This week, with the beginning of district-wide school closings across the country, there are an abundance of tweets from parents finding themselves impromptu teachers and homeschoolers. A quick search on Twitter of “teachers should be paid” returns a number of tweets which are all a variation on the same theme: I spent an hour trying to homeschool my kid and this confirms for me that teachers should all be paid gazillions of dollars. These statements highlight teaching as more than just conveying knowledge but instead a complex negotiation of motivation and thoughtfully-crafted learning experiences and spaces. Tweets by teachers making the rushed switch to remote learning show thoughtful depth to considering the cognitive load of learning new platforms while navigating anxiety and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Taken together, both parents and teachers are recognizing the critical role of care and relationships in successful teaching and learning, even as we find ourselves connecting through screens.

But it’s not much of a surprise that at the same time, ed-tech evangelists see the current moment as the opportunity for online learning to prove itself to be at least as good as, if not better than, teaching by human, in-person, teachers. As Alex Beard considers, can artificial intelligence and computers really replace teachers? Can AI really be that “good”?

Inherent to this question is an assumption of what we think it means to be a “good” teacher: one who teaches well, which is measured in one way or another through student outcomes. This could be high scores on standardized tests or students attending “good” colleges. But inherent to both is the idea that we can quantify good teaching, and if we can quantify it, then why couldn’t we work backwards to have AI deliver the same results?

At the point that we begin considering whether or not AI will replace humans, there typically comes a sort of panic, which Beard verbalizes: “oh no, the robot teachers are coming for education as we know it.”

But this panic is part and parcel of what we consider “education as we know it” to be. We can worry about AI replacing humans and online learning as a cheap substitute for learning in the classroom, but both express a concern that is ultimately about technology dehumanizing education. But therein lies the rub: “education as we know it,” when translated with more and more technology, isn’t fundamentally different from what we’ve already created in our brick-and-mortar classrooms, districts, and standardized testing schemes. In other words, technology or even the specter of an AI super-teacher can’t dehumanize education, because we’ve already dehumanized it all by ourselves.

As a country we wring our hands about underachievement of students, yet we remain complicit in the powerful ways in which poverty, racism, sexism, and ableism (to name a few systems of oppression) manufacture an education system that excludes and dehumanizes large groups of students. Students are more anxious and depressed than ever before, and few students see school as a valuable and meaningful place that connects to their lives and lived experiences — the humanity inherent to their lives aren’t considered necessary to or even welcome alongside the mandated content of the standardized curriculum and benchmarks of standardized tests. We’ve dehumanized their years in school as we’ve continued to double-down on an industrial, positivist model of teaching that constrains what is and should be a fundamentally innate and joyous human ability (learning). When we insist that education must be “data-driven” and we decide that we can only ever measure “good” by the decontextualized metrics of test scores, we’re dehumanizing teaching, with or without AI.

But we’ve made it work because of the bedrock of care and human relationships which can make and indeed always have made the best of bad situations. The vast amount of care work involved in education has never been successfully commodified and has little value in capitalism. Ask any woman or femme about emotional labor and they will give plenty of examples of care work unnoticed, unacknowledged, and unappreciated but still necessary in order for what society at large has deemed worthy and commodified in compensated labor to be possible. (It has recently been estimated that compensation for this care work would equal $10.9 trillion dollars for women.) And this care work is essential to our psychological needs: self-determination theory shows us that the positivist sticks-and-carrots can only inspire depression and anxiety, but a true feeling of relatedness is key to pro-social development and behaviors. No human can lean in a context or situation lacking in this sense of belonging.

By and large, our education system is a dehumanizing place in which we equate content taught with content learned in a top-down, teacher-centered place which uses sticks-and-carrots to motivate students. If effective learning really is just about internalizing and perfectly replicating material given, then recorded lectures and a few practice worksheets should do the job just fine. Most educators would balk at this idea, but then why do we force teachers to cover content to “prepare” students for standardized tests at the expense of deep and meaningful learning experiences beyond lectures and worksheets?

Student apathy and alienation shouldn’t be a surprise: we’ve dehumanized learning, which is an innate and naturally joyous activity for all of our students. We’ve already artificially constrained learning by a focus on standardized content and curricula that is actively disengaged from the world outside of our schools. This dehumanizing experience can and will be easy to replace with AI and there will be no lack of “evidence-based” practices to justify the use. In an online environment, the “controlled experiment” of education will be easier than ever to implement. Beard references one such controlled experiment showing that test groups learned more from a video lecture delivered by a younger person than an older person. This is just one example of a way in which “experiments” can be conducted to derive ever-more-efficient and optimal experiences for online learning. Absent from this is the understanding that experienced teachers know that a test has always been a lousy measurement of learning, with many inherent limitations, and reflective teachers know that performance-based assessments which prioritize transfer and contextualize learning to something meaningful and relevant show true learning beyond easy metrics.

So where does this leave us as we transition to remote learning for the foreseeable future? Well, for the short-term, we will all come to grips with the limitations of remote learning as we transition our existing lessons and curricula into a different format. In many ways it will feel like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. But for a reflective practitioner this should highlight places which were in fact the limitations of their pedagogical practice all along.

Human relationships can hide or make workable what are otherwise bad practices and remote learning forces a reckoning with practices which were done out of sheer inertia versus those with a comprehensive theory of learning. To give an example from my own practice, in making the switch to remote learning, the questions that come to mind for me are: How will I support students with attention and focus issues? How will I support students who struggle with independence, problem-solving, and executive functioning?

I ask these questions now precisely because I’ve gotten away with not having to ask those questions when with those students in person. I lean into my relationships with these struggling students, by making jokes to get students to return to being on-task or providing one-on-one support during group work, but that fact is that I’ve become comfortable with pulling them along through in-person accountability without providing any other supports. Though it can feel natural and simple to use my relationships with my students in this way, I’m not making it possible for those students to meet the ultimate learning goals I have for them: self-regulation, problem-solving, and deep inquiry. When switching to remote learning, the lack of appropriate differentiation in my practice is thrown into stark relief and as a reflective educator it is clear to me that I need to do some significant reckoning and consider which students I privilege in my classroom structures, routines, and expectations, and at whose expense.

There is no lack of advice on the internet right now about how to shift to remote learning, but in considering the limitations of my own practice, simplification is key. By limiting content but providing deeper and more differentiated activities, I can better support my students during a time of anxiety and uncertainty while also making my teaching practice more humane, especially for those students previously left out of my instructional design.

For the long-term, hopefully this cognitive dissonance of in-person practices versus online learning should force us to reevaluate what education can and should like under all situations. In other words, the question of how we humanize education during remote learning should make us consider how we humanize education when we are together, in-person rather than taking it for granted. How do we motivate students? How do we provide authentic, relevant, and challenging learning experiences that students are intrinsically motivated to work towards? How do we prioritize and scaffold learning for the sake of transfer demonstrated via performance-based assessments?

The good news is that we already have some pretty strong ideas of how to do this, including: culturally responsive teaching, project-based learning, cross-disciplinary subjects, experiential learning, cooperative tasks, authentic investigations oriented towards the community, a shift to the teacher-as-facilitator-and-mentor, and ungrading are just a few of the progressive approaches which not just ask but require students and teachers to bring their full selves to school. There’s nothing more relevant than the world we currently live in, so lean into the COVID-19 epidemic and invite students to engage deeply in learning which recognizes their fear and anxiety and supports their self-determination in tough times.

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Pictured: A map of the US on Opportunity Atlas.

Here are some examples of what that could look like:

All of these examples can take place online using both synchronous and asynchronous meetings and tools the students already know and case use (e.g., Google searches, Google Docs, etc.). Embrace a DIY aesthetic and embrace messiness, but articulate clear standards and expectations for their learning while asking students to reflect and benchmark their progress along the way. Authentic feedback from community partners will go a long way towards “sticking the landing” of the projects.

The irony of ed-tech evangelists saying that technology would disrupt education is not that ed-tech can deliver a wholly different and better way of teaching and learning but precisely that during a crisis, such as a pandemic which disrupts the natural rhythms and needs of human beings to exist in social spaces and relationships, mandatory implementation of ed-tech highlights the gaps we already had to begin with. The real disruption was never going to be MOOCs, remote learning, or new technologies, but instead a true reckoning and reevaluation of the gaps in our education system that have been there all along.

The solution isn’t to continue, full-speed-ahead, with the same approaches we used before but to instead commit to truly progressive education which rehumanizes learning for both teachers and students. In our current time of scarcity and fear it is increasingly clear that the community, safety, and belonging we all need can only be found if we build it for ourselves and others. As organizer Mariame Kaba tells us “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.” It’s time for us to remember this in education, whether we’re connecting through computer screens or connecting shoulder-to-shoulder in our classrooms and face-to-face in our schools.

Tegan Morton
Tegan is a science teacher and equity educator based in NYC. In addition to finding ways big and small to liberate education from oppressive systems.
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