Distance Learning's Downfall

Disasters, it is said, often have silver linings, and in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, this might be a widening access to computerized learning. Now, it is alleged, as a result of school closings, thousands of youngsters, disproportionately poor and members of minority groups, will finally possess the advantages of their more affluent schoolmates. In California, for example, thanks to Google’s generosity, some 4000 students will enjoy free Chromebooks while 100,000 rural households will have no-cost  Internet access for three months. Moreover, the LA schoolboard had previously allocated an emergency $100 million to provide free laptops while partnering with Verizon for free Internet. According to Linda Darling-Hammond, the California State Board of Education president, Google’s (and similar corporate) generosity will double the number of students with Internet access to help close the digital gap all the while also instructing teachers and parents how to master distance learning.

All sounds terrific, of course and, perhaps the race-related (and income) achievement gap will finally close, or at least narrow. Alas, don’t bet on it. Formidable obstacles will impede these good intentions and, most notably, distance learning may well exacerbate achievement gaps, the very opposite of what is intended.

Recall another Los Angeles’ venture to overcome dreadful academic achievement levels via a computer-for-everyone initiative.  In 2013 the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) decided to give every student a tablet computer loaded with a digital curriculum. 21st century here we come! The plan was to buy some 650,000 Apple iPads (only 43,261 were actually acquired) along with the necessary networking equipment, labs and the software from Pearson, a major education publisher. Total cost, financed by school bonds, was nearly $1.3 billion. The district’s superintendent John Deasy predictably foresaw the initiative as helping to close the race-and ethnic-related achievement gap. 

Unfortunately, within two years disaster struck, and the city’s lawyers were exploring lawsuits against Apple and Pearson, the FBI and the Security and Exchange Commission were probing possible fraud, and Deasy resigned. Leaving aside the criminality that may be inescapable with lavish contracts, the 2013 debacle should warn today’s high-minded miracle workers.

Technical glitches were endemic -- Internet connections were spotty and mismatched to tablet/software requirements. The whole system was poorly attuned to a multilingual school system. Students were often befuddled by computer lingo, let alone standard English. The need for extensive coordination among thousands of semi-computer literate teachers and administrators was underestimated. Not all teachers welcomed the time-consuming demands to learn the technology and many doubted the entire endeavor. Opportunity costs abounded -- absorbing software detracted from traditional instruction in much needed basics, particularly for English learners. Many students quickly disabled security features and “education” deteriorated into surfing the net for who knows what. 

The broader issue, however, it less the foibles of this particular (and financially wasteful) program but the overall value of computerized instruction as a miracle cure for the tribulations of educating troubled students. Yes, in this experiment most of the technology is free but the prognosis is still not a good one. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD studies outcomes in various countries that had invested in computerized instruction reported that, at least among 15-year-old students, relying on computers was associated with worse outcomes on the international PISA test that measured math, reading and science learning. A study of 6000 U.S. liberal arts college students reported a negative association between computer use and grades, an average decline from B+ to B. Experts are thus puzzled by these unexpected findings but suspect that the Net offers tempting distractions from hard work, and its passive learning style just provides only the illusion of serious learning. (Needless to say, the computers and educational attainment link is complicated. One review reports of 3674 studies between 1976 and 2016, but if a conclusive unambiguous upbeat outcome exists, it remains obscure,)

It might have been helpful if LA school officials had scrutinized Peru’s 2008 “One-Laptop-Per-Child” program (cost: $200 million) that distributed some 900,000 computers in primary schools. Hopefully young Peruvians would now find school fun, enrollment would increase, dropouts would decline and, critically, learning would soar. Alas, outside a bit of uptick in computer literacy, the initiative failed though a program elsewhere in Peru involving instructors tracking student performance via cell phones in real time plus allowing smart students to help struggling classmates and other time-consuming intervention did boost test scores.

The best case against this expensive, often unthinking rush into computers is that the overall race-related gap in educational achievement has remained constant over several decades despite hundreds of millions “invested in the children,” much of it allocated to cutting-edge technology. In fact, statistics on 4th grade reading levels in LA between 2002 and 2019 show no narrowing of the racial gap -- blacks still lag way behind.

This rush to embrace expensive technology is best understood as a political response to deeply rooted educational problems unspeakable in public. No politically savvy LA educator will dare criticize the students themselves for their ineptitude or ask hard questions about teacher unions protecting incompetent members or an open-borders immigration policy that burdens schools with a largely Spanish-speaking student body resistant to assimilation (82% of all students in California list Spanish as their primary language). These topics are “no-go” zones, so when pressured to “do something” educators embrace today’s politically inoffensive cliché of technology.    

Back to youngsters unable to attend school physically due to the COVID-19 virus. Clearly, something should be done, but is distance learning with a Chromebook the best solution? Hardly. Picture an impoverished Guatemalan family given that nearly one-quarter of all students in the LA system are “English learners.” What are the odds of getting everything running and junior (already likely to be a grade or two behind) actually mastering the lessons despite limited English?  Will Mom, who may not speak any English, be able to help? What about a helpline in Spanish for both the technical and pedagogical glitches? What about the support services only available on site at the school, for example, bi-lingual reading coaches? Who will monitor junior’s diligence let alone untangle confusions in newly launched software?

The perplexed family will likely lose interest, and the free Chromebook will just become a shopping tool. Truth be told, learning would probably improve if student were sent “old-fashioned” textbooks and returned completed assignments by snail mail to classroom teachers who knew them personally. Yes, a dumb as rocks solution, but likely to outshine the Chromebook.

Meanwhile over at Palo Alto, Emma is racing through the lessons thanks to her Stanford grad mother Meghan’s help and not having to worry about the teacher slowing down to accommodate laggards. Dad, an Intel engineer, is meanwhile finding web-based tutoring services like the Khan Academy. So, by the time school physically resumes, Maria from Guatemala has barely gotten the hang of distance learning while Emma has shot two grades ahead. Moral of the story: lavish spending on technology does not level the playing field, and those who struggle in class will also struggle at home, and the playing field will become even more unequal.