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The coronavirus pandemic forced schools, almost overnight, to integrate technological change into their practices that would’ve otherwise taken years to implement. When thrown in the deep end, educators opted to swim.
Schools did well to pivot to remote learning but nothing can replace face-to-face teaching.Credit:Martin Hunter
Schools were agile in their move from on-site to online learning within staggeringly swift timeframes. We had a newfound appreciation for the ubiquitous connectivity that has allowed that to happen in a time where increased screen time can be derided as the cognitive apocalypse.
It can be tempting to over romanticise a pre-smartphone era where chins weren’t tucked to chests and everyone “just talked to each other”. However, such nostalgia for yesteryear does little to inform how children and adults alike approach their reliance on the screen today. Without access to our devices, education for thousands of students across Victoria would’ve ostensibly ground to a halt in 2020.
In educational research and commentary around the long-term future of schooling, the prospect of the classroom teacher eventually being replaced by technology often arises. In Australia, with 97 per cent of households with children under 15 having access to the internet, and the ever-increasing access enabled by desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone devices, students across the country are increasingly connected.
Yet, the word connected in this internet age can be interpreted in a range of ways when we consider how we interact in the digital space. Having the facility to connect online and the ability to actually make connections with others are wholly different concepts.
Justifiably so, focus was on the perils of learning online for students and their parents who were given a front-row seat to their child’s learning from across the kitchen table. However, the role of the teacher in all of this was somewhat overlooked. In the interest of countering the sentiment of technology eventually replacing the sage on the stage, it is worth noting the range of factors that sitting behind a webcam have not been able to replicate.
Teacher and education academic Karl Sebire.
Schooling is not designed to be a siloed practice and the engagement and peer support that can be gained from students working in a shared space was all but lost. The minutiae of micro-interactions, body language, eye contact, classroom discussion and overall atmosphere that are relied upon to steer a lesson have been difficult to replicate, regardless of how advanced the digital tools being implemented.
There are teachers who would feel a gaping chasm between themselves and their students as they tried to remain engaging from behind a webcam. The frenetic, sometimes chaotic, pace of being in a dynamic learning environment was replaced with students becoming avatars and their teachers becoming a pixelated presenter in the optimistic hope of reaching their audience.
For teachers who have chosen the noble profession because they are energised by engaging young minds, the ability to connect with students means far more than just logging on.
Dr Karl Sebire teaches art and design at a Melbourne boys’ school and recently published PhD research titled ‘Learning in the Age of Distraction’.
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