Thanks to the current technological tools available (platforms, webinars, online multiple choice tests, video conferences, etc.), distance learning isn't really a problem. Or so I've heard. They say that whatever teachers tell their pupils in a face-to-face situation can be conveyed remotely as well.
But before reading on, I invite you to revisit your own school days and think about your teachers and professors. Who do you remember? And what memories are associated with these teachers? Take two minutes to think about that.
Now, do you still agree that teaching can easily be done remotely? If your answer is "yes," then I feel sorry for you. You probably didn't have many cool teachers. Personally, when I think about my teachers, from primary school to university, my memories recall people like:
- The one who made me feel good at school because I was greeted with a smile and kind words, and who made me feel I was important to her.
- The one who helped me fit in by encouraging contacts between me and other girls.
- Those who made me want to go to school because I knew we were going to learn and work, of course, but also laugh and sing sometimes.
- The ones who gave me the energy to get up in the morning to go to the auditorium because they gave fascinating classes filled with examples, anecdotes, reactions to students' questions, pirouettes to get back on their feet when the discussion was going in all directions, and so on.
It denies the very nature of the teaching profession.
- The one who made me want to become a teacher one day too, and to make it, as he did, a profession of humanity and benevolence
- I also think of all those times when the professor could "feel" that the students were paying less attention, and was able to bounce back by changing his teaching method, by offering a break, by asking us questions ... or by getting downright angry.
I learned a lot in school. And of course, I remember some of it but have also forgotten a lot. Some of the things I learned in books are useful to me today, others not so much.
But the lessons that were most valuable, that I apply on an everyday basis, are the ones I learned "off" the blackboard: How to fit in a group, obey, conform, and sometimes rebel. How to make friends, argue with them, find solutions to resolve our conflicts. How to explain myself, say what I think (or not). How to choose my path by drawing inspiration from models around me, by taking an example ... or a counter-example.
Distance teaching must be an educational choice — Photo: Laurie Dieffembacq/Belga/ZUMA
"Bookish" learning was only possible for me because it was accompanied by a parallel education that was both human and social. Had I only been presented with the books and the theories, I would have quickly given up.
If we think that the teaching profession is limited to transmitting to students the content of a subject, then yes, in this case, the face-to-face class no longer makes much sense and could be replaced (completely or partly) by an online lesson. And for some of the teachers I had growing up — people who knew their subject matter but had no real skills for sharing that information — it maybe wouldn't have made much difference.
Needless to say, I don't remember a lot from those classes. Fortunately, such teachers were a minority in my school career.
The flip side, of course, is that good teachers can do good work remotely. Distance learning tools are great, and if used well, they offer tremendous support for education. They allow you to vary methods, grab the attention of students, and bring complicated material to life. But they remain tools that must be at the service of education and not the other way around.
In March 2020, Belgian authorities chose to close schools, Haute écoles (higher education institutions) and universities. Nevertheless, we, teachers, were called to maintain educational continuity as best as we could. And we did everything in our power to do so. But as schools restart around the world, this should not become the norm.
As soon as possible, professors should have the right to choose whether they wish to teach remotely and/or face-to-face. It must be an educational choice: For a teacher, complementing his or her range of teaching tools with distance learning tools is one thing and, for some courses, it is great.
But some courses are not suitable for this at all in Haute école. Think of music education, athletics, arts, professional training workshops, first aid, ergonomics … Distance teaching must be an educational choice and not one related to health or economics.
Claiming that students can learn everything online through technological tools and making distance learning the norm denies the very nature of the teaching profession. It also means denying all the things that school teaches us — everything that sits outside the curriculum and that can only be learned through teacher-student and student-student interactions.
*Sophie Logjes is a professor in a Haute École in Belgium.
**This article was translated with permission from the author.
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