My last few posts have been a parade of depressing rambles on the likely inevitable end of the kind of schools and teaching I love. It is time to snap out this wintry funk and examine the daffodils for a few moments.
Online education can duplicate many aspects of secondary education. In some cases, it can better them. In other cases, it may fall a little bit short, but it does so at such a lower price that it will be embraced anyway. But there are many things it can’t duplicate. Social media can create a community of a sorts, but it isn’t the kind of community we have on the physical campus of our school. As people come together in different configurations — in assembly, in classes, on sports teams, in the dining hall, in the dorm, in their advisory groups, in Meeting For Worship — the exchange of greeting, glances, handshakes, hugs, moods, and reactions transcends the online experience and defies it. Of course at a Friends school the silence in the room during Meeting has a palpable texture that is a little bit different every time, and this element that is so essential to our understanding of our community is totally impossible to reproduce online. But so is the shorthand joshing that takes place between classmates who have shared a desk for months in a sunny corner classroom in the English department’s building. So are the smiles that are exchanged between a teacher and her former student from two years ago as they walk by each other on the path during passing time.
Are these interactions important? Do they “add value” to the education? I’d argue that they are the education, that they are co-curricular and the raison d’etre of a school like mine. We educate our students with the end in mind of creating a better world tomorrow, and with the hopes that each student will have a chance to live his or her best life. Without the experiential learning that breeds comfort with one’s fellow human beings, that outcome is impossible. How does one learn empathy sitting in front of a computer screen watching a lecture that was prerecorded? Even a live chat with video and a bunch of faces in little squares has no hope of approximating actual human contact. So much of communication is nonverbal.
Sure, the age of blended learning has arrived, and things are going to start changing (rapidly, I’d wager). But our students just wrapped up their performance of the winter play (Pride and Prejudice), and if you wanted to find the perfect example of what technology cannot replace, there it is. The students worked for months to rehearse, build the set, design the lighting, etc. Every cue had to be perfected, every dance step choreographed. The theater was jammed both Friday and Saturday nights with friends, siblings, parents, teachers, alums, etc. This kind of learning impacts everyone in the community, and we all live and die together with each perfectly delivered rejoinder or slightly flubbed delivery. There is a kind of literary arc to the theater program. It has its rising action and climax that is not exactly in sync with the rest of the academic program and thus brings a different rhythm to the week of the big production. How will online learning duplicate that?
Yes, there are a lot of ways to answer my argument. Schools are defunding the arts left and right. Students who attend wholly online schools could participate in the performing arts through local after-school programs. But this points out the vital need for great traditional school environments, and there will be many parents who seek those out for their children. The end is not nigh. Perhaps the end is not even a dot on the horizon. Despite my earlier jeremiad, my obsolescence may not be right around the corner. The real question for me is how to manage change, and how to help my colleagues understand it. Lately that has been looking like a daunting task, but it is a more useful one than issuing vague warnings about how we are all going to be replaced by apps.