Society

A Belgian Professor Grades Remote Learning: C+

The pandemic closed classrooms and pushed the education process online. It was a desperate measure for desperate times that avoided the worst, but shouldn't be the norm.

University students during an examination in Brussels
Sophie Logjes*

-OpEd-

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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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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