This writeup is meant to be understood as the product of my experiences teaching online, and those of several of my peers and friends who have been working in homeschooling, online, offline, and hybrid learning capacities, both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have further remarks which you would like me to consider, by all means bring your thoughts to my attention, and I will append them to this essay.
The strengths of online learning
Online learning is frequently more accessible than offline school, to students with disabilities, learning delays, and other complications (such as the logistics of getting to and from an offline classroom). Online classes may be recorded, rewatched, accompanied by subtitles, and otherwise accessed asynchronously from the teacher's actual lesson. They do not require transportation or exposure to the health risks inherent to public spaces. For children who have been subject to bullying
in the classroom, learning online avoids encounters with bullies. The recording of class sessions also can allow parents to be better informed about what is happening in their children's learning process, and how they are treated by their educators, in order to get more support if necessary. Everything can be documented, revisited, and - if needed - challenged.
Online college classes are often available at far lower cost than other courses, making them a more affordable option for college students than in-person attendance. They offer more flexibility around the student's own schedule, allowing jobs to be held down more reliably at the same time as maintaining good attendance and grades. They are more accessible in the case of hospitalisation or prolonged recovery from illness or surgery.
Online courses are more accessible to students learning in a second language, such as foreign exchange students and children of immigrant families. Any lecture with accompanying subtitles or text-based lecture notes can be translated by software or interpreters provided by the school, but in offline school, simultaneous interpretation is commonly only provided for Deaf students.
Online schooling is economically more sustainable for schools, after accommodating an initial up-front cost of tools and equipment, because school buildings do not require heating or lighting while they are unoccupied, and the management of a greater number of students can be placed with a smaller number of teachers. Curriculum is easier to recycle in an online capacity, which saves time planning lessons and reduces the costs of replacement textbooks, because digital books do not age and deteriorate in the costly manner that physical books do, and they cannot be vandalised or lost in any manner which would necessitate their replacement. Furthermore, after accounting for the cost of a computer and internet connection, students do not actually need to have other school supplies, for most online learning. Anything requiring a pencil and paper can now be done with a touchscreen or keyboard, and file folios and binders are simply digital storage, not a resource needing replacement every school year.
The weaknesses of online learning
Online learning requires internet access, which is an economic concern that affects some households more severely than others, and which disproportionately worsens the quality of available education in some regions compared to others, simply because rural internet service is usually very poor (slow and unreliable) compared to urban internet service. It also requires a device to access the internet, another demanding economic consideration, and an adequately quiet space to access the online course. Home offices
may only be so private, in large households, especially multi-generational households, homes with loud pets, or homes with many children and few adult guardians. Furthermore, teachers have no ability to directly assist students suffering technical difficulties, and many of these students are very small preliterate children who cannot read the message "turn your sound on," if a child should accidentally mute audio during a lesson.
Like homeschooling, online learning is a comparatively isolated form of education, which not only limits a child's access to peers and trustworthy adults outside the family, for the sake of their psychological and social development, but also facilitates greater risk of undiscovered neglect and abuse. A teacher offline has the greatest chance of noticing indications that a child is abused, and reporting the matter to appropriate authorities. Online schooling sometimes allows teachers to see enough of a child's home life to recognise abuse actively occurring, but if effort is taken to mask it, the abuse may go unnoticed and unreported. Similarly, young adults often would wish to escape their parents' custody and control by attending college away from home, and they may find it much harder to get away from their parents, under the justification that they can learn the same things at home that they can away from home, and should not waste money on a dorm room.
On the other hand, online learning points cameras directly into students' private living space, which can give educators an inappropriate level of access for scrutiny into the private lives of students, including non-consenting members of their families. The technology used for video calling and online classrooms is also not immune to malicious uses or invasion by malware, and may facilitate persistent surveillance and stalking of students, beyond the actual lesson hours.
Online teaching can suffer an erosion of work-life boundaries, above and beyond what offline teachers already suffer, in their obligations to grade assignments, communicate with student families, and plan lessons on their own time rather than during paid hours. Because students are accustomed to encountering their teachers online, through a medium which gives them prompt access to the teacher, lacking compartmentalisation between where a student is physically located during and outside class time, students (and parents) may feel greater entitlement to immediate responses to their communication with teachers. Teachers may find themselves treated as though they are "on call" for e-mail and direct messaging, rather than having clearly delineated office hours during which they may be contacted. There is also an erosion of teacher-parent boundaries with online learning: parents need to stay available to help their children resolve technical issues, as well as any disciplinary issues (such as a child getting up and leaving the room altogether) that the teacher cannot resolve through verbal communication with the child. Likewise, some parents attempt to "parent through the screen" by using online class time as supplementary childcare instead of educational time, expecting teachers to babysit and entertain the child, even if that would disrupt learning for classmates.
The erosion between a child student's sense of "home" and "school" can become a significant problem for both discipline of the child, and overreach of control by the teacher: a child expects to be able to run to the restroom at any time, in their own home, and to eat whenever they feel hungry, and to interact with their pets and siblings. Attempting to apply the same regimentation of behaviour in the home as what is used at school damages student-teacher dynamics, and some might consider this proof that classroom settings are innately too dogmatic, requiring children to sit still and remain alert for most of eight continuous hours, five days a week. It is also prohibitively difficult to conduct childhood physical education classes over online learning, chiefly because a home is not a gymnasium: not all families have a safe open area within the home in which exercise may be conducted on camera, without risk of damaging the computer. While an adult may voluntarily follow along with a yoga video, an adult is also expected to have a reasonable level of coordination and control over their own body, and is at less risk than a child of kicking the computer off its desk, or otherwise damaging equipment in the process. Team sports like basketball are also naturally out of the question in online learning, as are coordinated realtime activities like band and choir classes, meaning that children experience less teamwork, less rhythmic entrainment, and less stimulation of their vestibular system, all of which are essential to other aspects of development.
Online educators generally do not have access to one another's lesson plans, and tend to have less collaboration between teachers in various subjects, than they would have offline (if they collaborate at all). The result of this severed communication is that students are given homework in fluctuating frequencies and intensities, with little regard for what other projects they may have assigned, or how long assignments will take to be completed. In offline school, teachers would organise a more even spacing of major projects, so that students are not saddled with many large assignments all due on the same day. This imbalance is exaggerated further by the fact that teachers have more difficulty engaging students one-on-one when teaching them online, and students have more difficulty obtaining personalised assistance, or having it noticed when they are struggling and need help.
With offline schooling, parents have more exposure to other parents, allowing them to notice quickly which teachers are widely popular and unpopular, and to learn the reputations of school administrators and the curriculum. In online learning, student families are isolated from one another, if they do not go out of their way to pursue communication, and this can allow discriminatory and unkind educators to continue their work without interruption, to the detriment of students.
If students have access to quality devices, reliable fast internet service, parental support, and other necessary resources, online learning is an effective supplement to offline learning, and it definitely has its necessary place in making learning more attainable for students who experience extraordinary obstacles to classroom learning.
Hybrid learning models combine the better features of both offline and online models, allowing students the benefit of social connections to peers and trusted adults, the reasonable scrutiny by mandatory reporters of their health and the safety of their home lives, and the ability to revisit lessons at their own pace without feeling that they are holding up the class or falling behind their classmates. The hybrid model, when supplemented by one-on-one instruction by online tutors and speech or occupational therapists, takes this further by guaranteeing students receive specialised personal attention from educators, but because one-on-one engagement of this type is generally a service paid by the student's family, it is economically closed to working class single-parent households, who often need it the most.
Iron Noder 2021, 15/30