Opinion | Why instructing online is an inadequate way of teaching

Paul Ruth

Paul Ruth is a teacher in Eastpointe Community Schools. He also is an adjunct instructor at Macomb and St. Clair County community colleges

As a high school teacher in Michigan, I have been ordered to continue education for my 207 students remotely with Google Classroom or with packets mailed home. My in-person college class that I teach has also been moved online. Having understood online education from a philosophical and historical perspective, I initially thought that, although a different concept, the education level would be the same.

Don’t get me wrong. The rigor is still there, the assignments are still there, the reaching out and motivation are still there, but the human component is lacking in some of the crucial moments as a teacher. Michigan school districts need to track engagement levels to develop better practices for getting students involved. When I first started teaching online this year, I identified which students had logged on, sent emails, made comments, completed assignment, or talked on a Google Hangout phone call, and found myself referring to students in my head by their nicknames and abbreviated names. 

This didn't seem like a big deal, until I stopped taking this personal connection for granted. I learned these alternate names from the students. Students would correct me, as I ask them to, on the first day of class while I was calling out the roll and getting to know them. Other times, students would call one another by their colloquial titles, having known each other for years as classmates. Knowing what someone wants to be called is an interpersonal development and relationship builder that heightens the possibilities of education achievement. 

It doesn't end with names. I find myself knowing when students are being funny on Google Classroom because I know them from their interaction, body language and facial expressions in the physical classroom. I know when to provide comfort because I remember the discussions on home life. I have plenty of experience making urgent contact to counselors and offices to ensure someone touched base with a student after learning of a possible dangerous situation at home. I enjoy standing in the hall greeting students between class periods, even if they weren't my students. No teacher educating through this crisis will take face-to-face interaction for granted. 

Technology is a tool in our 21st-century society, but as the economy develops and artificial intelligence changes the nature of labor, students need the skills that make us the most human. This develops from face-to-face interaction. Online education works well for many students, but not for the majority as the only means of instruction. We must make the world safe for students to return to school physically with equal and fair access to a brick-and-mortar schoolhouse. 

We are apart now, so that one day we can come together in person again and push education forward for the next generation.

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Sat, 05/02/2020 - 9:19am

Absolutely true. Except for the fact that teachers had inadequate time to prepare (though by and large, they hit it out of the park anyway), this is pretty much the gold standard for online education. Teachers had the opportunity to get to know their kids before the classes went online, and because the class sizes were planned for face-to-face instruction, class sizes are (relatively) reasonable--not the 100+ that happens in online charters.

And it's still a poor substitute for actual school. This experience should put the push for online education to an end.

Chuck Jordan
Sun, 05/03/2020 - 11:23am

Thanks Paul. Great to know there are teachers like you out there. I get so tired of the teacher bashers.

A Yooper
Sun, 05/03/2020 - 12:33pm

The pandemic caught every service delivery system by surprise. Be it the gamut of education with public schools, community colleges, universities, medical services via Tele-health, Zoom, etc., not to mention how workplace culture will change. Will workplace offices become history as more and more people are working from home? Companies will save monies by not having to rent space, pay for heat, electric, cleaning, maintenance and related costs. Brick and mortar settings are yielding to electronic formats, and education started a long time ago with the first online degrees. We went from “correspondence” courses to the University of Phoenix in 1989 followed by totally online university programs. It is the new “normal” and it’s all in flux. The education system is also being forced to adapt with a blending of existing approaches plus new attempts, and it’s going to be trial and error for a long time. People like Betsy DeVoss must NEVER be permitted to have that amount of education power. Our local school board is so dysfunctional, teachers, parents and employees don’t bother to attend meetings. I have a master’s degree in a rehabilitation field with extensive experience working with kids with developmental disabilities, emotional disorders, program management, grant writing, personnel management and so on and when I applied for a sudden vacancy in our local school board, I was told because I hadn’t attended many meetings I didn’t meet their criteria. I am glad I am retired now. Good luck to all of you teachers.

William Bryce
Tue, 05/05/2020 - 8:35pm

I have been reading , studying and teaching the social sciences for fifty years. US education is top heavy with administrators. These folks love on line teaching (cost savings are endless- lay off teachers, increase class size, MBA heaven). On line is a continuation of the destructive shift to part timers. My roommate once taught eleven different classes at nine different colleges. He made a little less than a full time instructor with NO benefits. Corporate thinking is now dominant. A coalition of teacher unions and concerned community people are the only ones with the power to slow this trend. Thank God for the Chicago teachers union. We have much to learn from them. It was good teachers who gave me inspiration and a rewarding life. My computer rarely inspires.

Mon, 05/18/2020 - 12:58pm

It's important to remember that we are in a crisis and what is going on now is not an accurate representation of normal online schooling or traditional homeschool. Even those who already chose to school from home are being affected by all this. Schooling from home has never inherently meant social isolation and not being able to make meaningful connections. The socialization part of things is really up to the individual regardless of what kind of schooling they choose. Many online teachers even state they've been able to make stronger connections in the virtual format due to being able to make things more personalized. I teach at an online school and the level of positive connection and collaboration between the staff is higher than I've seen it anywhere else. Is online school for everyone? Of course not, but when done well it is effective for many students, sometimes even more effective than brick and mortar (and I'm glad to see that the author recognized that it does work for some). My heart goes out to everyone missing their students and colleagues right now, it is an incredibly difficult situation, but in this conversation we must recognize that there is a huge difference between suddenly being forced into something you're not used to during a crisis , and choosing the online option with adequate resources, systems, and training.