Tech widens the educational divide. And I should know – I'm a teacher in a pandemic

Teaching online is like talking to a brick wall


Register Debate Welcome to the latest Register Debate in which writers discuss technology topics, and you – the reader – choose the winning argument. The format is simple: we propose a motion, the arguments for the motion will run this Monday and Wednesday, and the arguments against on Tuesday and Thursday. During the week you can cast your vote on which side you support using the poll embedded below, choosing whether you're in favour or against the motion. The final score will be announced on Friday, revealing whether the for or against argument was most popular.

It's up to our writers to convince you to vote for their side.

This week's motion is: Technology widens the education divide. And now today, arguing FOR the motion is ROWAN CULLEN, who recently qualified as a secondary school teacher.

I am going to put it out there: hybrid learning sucks. Let me tell you why I have come to this conclusion, which is based on my experience as a trainee geography teacher, now qualified, in the pandemic at a huge co-ed secondary school in southeast England.

First, a little about the school, which has almost 2,000 students aged 11 to 18, who come from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. This is jargon for: there are a lot of children from poor families. And how poor, we found out when lockdown learning and hybrid education became a thing.

At the start of the 2020 academic year, teachers had to create Home Learning Packs and online lessons in the anticipation that students would be self-isolating, in addition to in-person teaching at school. The Home Learning Packs were created for students without access to the internet. Planning three varieties of the same lesson, according to the personal circumstance of the student, is an example of ‘hybrid’ learning in action. It is also a waste of everyone’s time.

During partial school closures, when there was yet another COVID-19 outbreak, only the most eager kids completed the online lessons. Even fewer kids handed in the home packs – in fact I don’t recall getting the opportunity to mark a single example of the packs I distributed to dozens of children. But to be clear, this is not the students’ fault. And it wasn’t the school’s fault either.

Most students without internet would return to school with multiple unopened envelopes whilst most students with internet would return with some idea of what was happening in school.

COVID-19 forced hybrid learning onto our school. But inequality, and funding problems over lack of laptops for students, are not the only reasons why it sucks. Teaching online is like talking to a brick wall that occasionally types, "it’s coming home!" during the Euro championship. Nothing beats supporting students with face-to-face education and unfortunately pupils with special educational needs (often from poorer families) got lost without it.

When hundreds of laptops were distributed around my school in January 2021, belatedly filling the technology gap, my colleagues collectively sighed in relief at the prospect of a slight reduction in workload (no more home packs) and the possibility of their most vulnerable students catching up to their peers. However, during the lockdown that "cancelled Christmas," key-worker and vulnerable children, rightly, remained in school whilst their classmates were learning from home.

Stay with me here, as the logistics were a bit mad. A teacher would go into school and be supporting a class of vulnerable and key-worker children. They would beam a different teacher onto the board where the teacher at home would deliver a lesson. This sometimes meant that I would beam another geography teacher to deliver a lesson from home to a class of students they didn’t know. As you can imagine, this was carnage. Again, can we blame students for not wanting to sit at their desks all day having unengaging lessons thrown at them through a screen?

When teachers weren’t delivering lockdown lessons to students who were still actually in school, we would hold online lessons to those who were at home on their new laptops. Students no longer had to complete work using their mobile phones (excellent) but often didn’t have an actual surface to put their laptop on (not excellent). If more students had their cameras on, I’m sure we would have seen a lot more students doing school work from their beds. So for a lot of students, what came first was the laptop, not the desk, or adequate broadband, or personal use of their new laptops, or motivation, and so on.

These will still be problems long after the pandemic has faded.

It is not a surprise to me that privately educated and grammar school kids were more likely to receive top grades in this year’s exams. These schools didn’t have to navigate the impossibilities of educating some kids one way, some another, and the rest not at all. What is most important, however, is how our students are going to cope with being back in the classroom. That is when the true effects of digital exclusion will become apparent.

I urge you to vote for the motion. ®

Cast your vote below. We'll close the poll on Thursday night and publish the final result on Friday. You can track the debate's progress here.

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