Back in 2008, the business professor Clayton Christensen predicted that by 2019, half of all US high school classes would be taken online. It’s now 2020 and this prediction has not come true, in the US or any other country. Why is this? Is it fundamentally impossible to get remote learning to work as well as classroom-based learning? Are there things we could do to improve it that we are not doing? Or is it all just inertia, and will an external shock like coronavirus make us realise that it can work after all?
Ironically, some of the reasons why remote learning has failed in the past can be seen in Christensen’s own work. In the same book where he makes his prediction about online courses, he also says that they will be transformative because they will allow students to receive personalised instruction based on their own learning style. Unfortunately, there is no evidence learning styles exist. Study after study shows that what matters is not the preferred learning style of the student, but the best learning style for the content being studied. But the education technology world is not listening to this evidence. Summit Learning, an online learning platform which is funded by the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation and has been praised by Bill Gates, is also heavily invested in learning styles.
Even when education technology is not overtly based on pseudoscience, it’s still not based on an accurate understanding of what teaching and learning involve. Too often, it’s assumed that education is just the presentation of content. If that really were the case, then much older learning technologies would have solved the remote learning problem: the printing press and the camera. Indeed, Thomas Edison predicted this in 1913, arguing that within ten years education would be carried out via motion pictures. His prediction was wrong just as Christensen’s was, because good teachers do more than just present content. They are constantly questioning, listening, and reacting to their students.
Modern technology does allow for more of this type of interaction, and that’s why some schools are thinking about video-conferencing. The problem here is a technical one: expecting every student and teacher to have a reliable enough internet connection to allow for video calls between 25+ different computers is highly optimistic.
Instead of attempting to replicate the classroom via a video-conference, we could think of simpler ways of achieving the interactivity that is crucial to teaching and learning. Adaptive learning platforms are designed to personalise instruction – not on the basis of non-existent learning styles, but using information about a student’s previous studies. The most complex adaptive platforms consist of thousands of questions and videos, and often need some kind of teacher and student training before implementation. But other adaptive platforms are much simpler. Some are essentially just collections of flashcards combined with a spaced-repetition algorithm that displays each flashcard at the ideal moment.
It sounds simple, but decades of research show this is one of the most effective ways to study. Some flashcards apps are free, and some support offline use for students with unreliable internet connections. They also provide teachers and students with data on the time spent studying and patterns of strengths and weaknesses.
Of course, we should also be realistic about what can’t be delivered through a wire. For example, we know that young children pay attention when they hear adults speaking, but not when they hear the same adults saying the same things on a video, and we know that handwriting has value over typewriting when it comes to learning to read and taking notes. Teachers provide motivation, encouragement and supervision, and you can’t switch them off by giving them a one-star rating in the app store.
But there are certainly ways in which technology can help learning, and over the coming weeks many schools will have no choice but to experiment with remote learning. We will all benefit if these experiments are based on the best research.