Acton Institute Powerblog

Are educational models heading toward creative destruction?

Some 1.2 billion students around the world experienced school closures and an inevitable move to online learning or homeschooling toward the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Graduations and end-of-year celebrations were canceled due to COVID restrictions on public assemblies. This may have been good way to limit the contagion, but did it bring unintended consequences? Was all the creative destruction of traditional education more harmful than it was helpful?

Now with the coronavirus lingering longer than most people thought it would and the beginning of a new academic year upon us, schools across the United States have had a big decision to make: Should they go back to online learning or return to “brick and mortar” schools? Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of virtual educational models.

Shifting to completely online learning allows three different modes of education: asynchronous learning, synchronous learning, or a combination of the two. Asynchronous learning does not include real-time interactions between teachers and students, whereas synchronous learning is conducted live with teachers directly instructing students through video-streaming technology like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Teams, or Skype. Both forms of online learning are valuable for students and teachers, but not all students find online learning easy to follow.

For students who benefit from discussion or question-and-answer sessions, synchronous learning is most beneficial. It is also a building block for students to become more accustomed to the novel atmosphere of distance learning. Asynchronous learning, on the other hand, promotes more independent study because learning takes place on the students’ time and largely at their own pace. Finally, it must be said that both synchronous and asynchronous models are more affordable, economically speaking, when compared to traditional, in-person education.

With all of these benefits, pivoting to online learning seems to be a great option for students and teachers. Why not make the virtual classroom a permanent part of the future and destroy centuries-old “school house” models? It may be beneficial to slowing the spread of COVID-19, but when looking at the overall effects of online learning, there may be more negatives than positives.

When asked about the shift, college students seemed to find online learning easier than they imagined, but isolation seemed to weigh heavily on many. The lack of lunch-time laughs, classroom camaraderie, and roommate discussions drastically reduced the quality of life for students. Many found themselves alone for long periods of time with their only human interaction occurring online or through phone and chat sessions. While modern technology has made distance relationships possible, we all crave in-person social interaction, especially in market-based societies built on free association. We are hardwired for relationships, according to our human nature. It is an intrinsic part of our human composition. It is one thing is to reason and learn but another is to reason and learn while forging relationships with a classroom full of people. The in-person interaction, which we often taken for granted, is what makes critical social virtues like empathy, compassion, tolerance, and cooperation possible. They, in turn, pay critical dividends in sustaining a voluntary, morally anchored, and exchange-based society.

Schools, therefore, are not just diploma factories but are one of the primary sources for human interaction and the virtues it sustains. Thus, schools should not be deemed breeding grounds for disease but a primer for mitigating social maladies such as selfishness, egoism, and the callous treatment of our neighbor with good citizenship and moral discernment.

To overcome isolation and other ill-effects of reduced human interaction, American universities have attempted to accommodate as many students as possible with hybrid online and in-classroom instruction. This may increase the chance for real-time human exchanges and free association. However, it may be short-lived in the event of renewed nationwide lockdowns.

Online learning has put an added strain on the parents of children and adolescents who live at home. Instead of being able to drop their children off at school before heading to work, many parents find themselves struggling to juggle work, COVID-19 concerns, and online learning. For example, the Shire family in Pennsylvania had been sending their daughter to a great public school, between COVID-19 restrictions and both parents working full-time jobs, they were forced to pay a private school for daycare, making it more difficult for them to pay their other bills. Parents who elect to educate their children themselves, on the other hand, must purchase classroom supplies in order to provide their children with comparable quality to “brick and mortar” schooling.

In contrast, a benefit of online learning for some parents is their ability to become more involved with their children’s education. For many families, parents are now able to interact more with teachers and be kept updated on their children’s progress. They can ask questions and supplement the teacher’s instruction. One survey found that 80% of parents are more involved in the education of their children since the beginning of COVID-19. Having more parents involved in their own children’s education reinforces the belief that children’s learning really does begin at home – especially concerning subjects like virtuous character development, which is often purposefully left out of state school systems.

Coronavirus-related school closures have taught us that while we can creatively alter educational models, the human person cannot be modified. As humans we all deeply desire personal, voluntary social interaction, exchange, and conversation. It is a fundamental way of remedying solitude and, above all, honing our social virtues in market-based cultures. If producing responsible and free citizens of society is the number one goal of education, then pure isolation models will be short-lived. We should not expect any permanent paradigm shift in this direction. Meanwhile, hybrid models might lead us to reduce overall costs, grant more freedom to develop critical independent thought, and syphon off bureaucratic bloat from America’s educational system.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Kielce Gussie

Kielce Gussie is a Church Communication graduate student at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.