Opinion: We can’t expect every kid to shift to online learning without skipping a beat

The top issues dominating my reader emails this week are online learning and grading. University of Georgia education professor and frequent AJC Get School contributor Peter Smagorinsky addresses both today.

Among his awards, Smagorinsky earned the Horace Mann League’s 2020 Outstanding Public Educator award. The league gives the award to an educator who has supported public education throughout his or her career.

By Peter Smagorinsky

There has been a lot written and discussed about how to manage schools this spring. I am not writing today because I’ve discovered the answer. I’m just as perplexed by this brave new world as you are.

For nearly the last month, I’ve been shut in at home. All I know about education, aside from my own efforts at online university teaching, is what I read in the news and what I hear from teachers trying to teach from home. Although some people believe that we are in the midst of a much-needed transition from in-person to online learning—indeed, that the coronavirus pandemic gives us an opportunity for change and innovation that we should capitalize on—many others find it to be problematic for many reasons.

Homebound workers are experiencing challenges of working from home while keeping their own kids’ education on track. Domestic violence is way up during the sequester, amplified by joblessness and confinement. The hastily-produced online systems have had all the bugs you’d expect from new, untested technologies. And much more.

On Feb. 29 I attended a wedding with all the predictable hugging, hand-shaking, and other since-verboten behaviors. A little over a week later, everything changed. The sheer abruptness and unexpectedness of the change has produced psychological whiplash that has forced difficult adjustments.

UGA professor Peter Smagorinsky sent me an updated headshot for this guest column in the age of COVID-19.

In this short time, during which schools and universities have gone from their familiar routines to online substitutes, the nature of academic work has shifted. I’ll confine myself to K-12 schools here, rather than universities, which people for the most part choose to attend. 

School, in contrast, isn’t every kid’s first choice for how to spend the day. Simply getting them to select homework over video games is among the challenges facing teachers during the shutdown.

One of the questions in heavy circulation among educators is how to grade students fairly given the suddenness of the crisis. There have been many suggestions on how to grade. One is to keep everything as it was, and grade what comes in according to existing standards and flunk what doesn’t come in. Another is to give every student As in every course. Others suggest that it’s fair to only grade pass/fail, and to be compassionate and understanding about who gets which grade. 

From what I can tell, these solutions don’t depict quite the reality that I hear about from friends in the schools. As I hear it, if teachers were to rely on their own judgment and issue the grades that their students earned, the most commonly issued grade would be Incomplete.

In “Field of Dreams,” Ray Kinsella heard a voice-vision: If you build it, he will come. We’ve now built an online system for learning, but getting the kids to come hasn’t been quite as alluring as it was for Kinsella to lure the ghosts of ballplayers to a ballpark. The film’s tagline was “If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true.” Adapted to today’s brave new world, the tagline might be, “If you believe the impossible, then you are in for quite a letdown.”

Schools have been shut down for about a month now, and there are still kids who haven’t gone online yet. There’s an assumption that young people are “digital natives” who, unlike us old geezers, grew up in the computer age and therefore have a great facility with working online. A lot of the attention to the online migration has gone to teachers who have struggled to teach with technology and without human contact. But they are only half of the problem.

If kids could do school via social media or video games, their digital nativity might indeed give them an advantage. But shifting rapidly to online learning has been as foreign to them as it was for me when I was parked in front of a Saturn computer system as a 1980s graduate student and told to figure out how to use it. (I couldn’t.)

One teacher I know spends much of every weekday on the phone or on conferencing software simply trying to get her students up and running on the school’s online system, which to them is as navigable as a rocket ship console. When her daughter asked her why she is always shouting during these conversations, she explained that the houses are so noisy with chaos that she has to raise her voice simply to be heard.

It doesn’t help that her school interrupts her for staff meetings all the time, and that these meetings often produce new protocols and ways of recording data. She might spend hours developing material for her students, only to be told that it all needs to be reformatted or rewritten. 

Imagine being a 15-year-old on the other end of these endless changes, surrounded by squabbling siblings, a parent trying to do a job online while managing the domestic din, an abusive parent terrorizing the household, an ailing senior citizen who might be carrying a deadly disease, barking dogs, a TV on in the background, and other interruptions and distractions.

Imagine being that 15-year-old whose working mother needs the only up-to-date computer to put food on the table, and trying to do schoolwork online on a device provided by the school from its remaindered collection in the basement. Imagine doing all this having to rely on a Wi-Fi bus that drives around providing what homes lack for connectivity. And imagine doing all this while hungry, fighting spring allergies, feeling cabin fever, missing your friends, and having your mental health fragility threatened by a disease that is killing thousands every day.

What sort of grade should you give? If the situations I know of are widespread, then you really can’t expect every kid to just shift to online learning without skipping a beat. You can’t even expect them to all be able to get online, or know what to do once they get there. 

Perhaps what we should do is recognize that these times are extraordinary, that we can’t expect to apply the normal rules to today’s crisis, that the rules, regulations, and routines can proceed such that in May, final grades can go out as if all’s well in the world. It isn’t. 

Many, many kids are not going to do work on schedule right now. Will the sky really fall if this semester, work goes undone and ungraded, and we just write this off as a once-a-century crisis that calls for extreme measures? Might we just accept that Incomplete is an acceptable grade during this extraordinary semester, given how much else in our lives is incomplete these days? 

But don’t ask me. Ask a teacher. They’ll tell you all this and more.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.