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Making the best of a bad situation

Remote Learning has been forced on Chicago’s students, teachers, and parents by the COVID-19 pandemic. The video in circulation on social media of a teacher’s song about remote learning says it all (spoiler alert: it ends with a scream). Technical difficulties, connection problems, and technology flaws are the tip of the iceberg.

Teachers are making the best of a bad situation, but a Google classroom is not a classroom. It’s harder to connect with students, to intuit understanding of content from their faces, and to arrange effective small-group learning. Students struggle to keep track of all the links, documents, platforms and applications they’re now required to juggle. Many students are not connected at all. Homeless students need safe places for their families to live, not just a Chromebook. The needs of English learners and special education students are much more difficult to meet online.

Still, social workers like Alyssa Rodriguez — as well as other clinicians, teachers, and paraprofessionals — are doing what they can to support students. Rodriguez creates mental health activities, including dance parties and videos aimed at helping students process their emotions.

Remote learning limitations

The limitations of remote learning — as well as the other, more deadly, impacts of the pandemic — could have been much less harmful. But this would have required the federal government to ramp up production of tests in January, when the spread of this novel coronavirus was known. The 2011 movie, Contagion — along with a bunch of scientists — told us that.

The same governmental protectors of the rich who are now rushing to get the economy up and running, regardless of safety concerns, are also plotting a course for computers to replace teachers in the future. The profiteers know to “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” While educators are stuck trying to make the best of a bad situation and teach remotely, the ‘edupreneurs’ are plotting how they can use this crisis to convince school districts to buy into their “personalized learning” scam.

CPS budgeted $2.8 million for personalized learning programs for the 2019-20 school year. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative gave $14 million to Chicago’s Leap Innovations, run by charter school expansion proponent Phyllis Lockett, to train for and pilot personalized learning programs.

CPS has not prioritized making sure that students — particularly those with the most needs — have the necessary class size, support staff, clinicians, or librarians. It took an 11-day CTU strike to get the district to agree to a nurse and social worker in every school. Yet, Personalized Learning programs are offered mostly to poor students of color. That alone might raise concerns.

Wealthy parents demand less screen time, not more

Parents in wealthier school districts are demanding less screen time and more human interaction, while poorer students are given computerized “personalized learning.” This New York Times headline says it all: The Digital Gap Between Rich and Poor Kids Is Not What We Expected. America’s public schools are still promoting devices with screens — even offering digital-only preschools. The rich are banning screens from class altogether.

The article discusses the negative impacts of too much screen time and the fact that in spite of what has been called the digital divide, low-income teenagers are on screens nearly two and a half hours a day more than their higher income peers, according to a study by Common Sense Media.

Black and Latinx children are also on screens more than white children. Wealthier parents are demanding fewer screens in school and choosing private schools that emphasize experiential learning activities. Rich people who want their kids to have individualized learning send their kids to schools with small class sizes, a diverse curriculum, and a less regimented environment, with fewer standardized tests.

When teachers think about personalized learning, we might think of allowing students to pursue their own interests, with or without technology, within the context of support by administrators for teacher autonomy and flexibility, and in a setting with ample supplies and small class sizes. When edupreneurs promote personalized learning, they’re thinking about the products they can sell if students have more screen time.

Education is an inherently social process, not a product. Schools should create the flexible, thoughtful, creative, and engaged problem solvers all children need to become. However, at no point will children reach these goals when technology is treated as an end in itself. The best way to up the level of education is to invest in educational resources, school facilities, ongoing professional development of teachers, and experiential learning activities that truly engage and challenge students. These activities may, of course, include the use of technology, at school and at home.

The issues associated with lack of technology in so many students’ homes, where a third of students did not have computers when remote learning in CPS started, are serious. The divide between students whose parents have to work outside the home versus the more privileged students whose parents are around to provide enrichment is serious as well. However, teaching online during the pandemic has shown us all the ways that remote learning is less learning, is uneven learning, and is individual rather than collaborative learning.

Yes, our students need equal access to technology. No, we don’t want our classrooms to become in-person versions of remote learning. Edupreneurs, beware. We are on to you.

Carol Caref, Ph.D. is an Education Policy Analyst with the Chicago Teachers Union.