We are living in special times. Asia and the Middle East had already experienced coronavirus epidemics (SARS-CoV-1 for Asia in 2002/2003, MERS for the Middle East in 2012). But Europe had not experienced a widespread deadly epidemic since probably the Spanish flu in 1918. It’s an understatement to say that we were not prepared to deal with it. And, in spite of the thunderous declarations of certain researchers in need of public recognition, this epidemic, which lasts and remains without proven reliable treatment, paralyzes a significant part of the functioning of our society.
Some activities were easily adaptable. Free software and open-source developers, used to working in decentralized teams with collaborators around the world, have not been overly disrupted in their work. Some office activities were easily adapted, with some acclimatization time and a few modifications to the work environment. But some activities have proven to be surprisingly unsuitable for containment, regardless of the means used. Among which: teaching.
Since the beginning of the lockdown in France in early March, I’ve had several occasions to teach classes. At the beginning, completely remote, then, after the end of the lockdown, with half of the class in the classroom and half remote. To choose between the two, I prefer the complete remote. The mixed system chosen by some schools I teach in is barely manageable. If I move around the room, I lose the connection with my remote students. If I stay permanently with my remote students, I have more difficulty hearing my students in class calling me under headphones. It’s the worst of both worlds.
But that doesn’t mean that full remote is ideal. I lose a lot of contact with the students. First of all, I don’t see them anymore. I can no longer spot those who let themselves go or even those who are having trouble with an exercise. You don’t realize it until you teach for the first time but most students won’t dare to ask questions. They will rather try harder for a very long time and then give up entirely or eventually ask for help. But you never know which one it will be.
My role, as a teacher, is to ensure that students get what I try to teach them. And if they fail to learn, then I’ve failed as a teacher. The problem is: to be able to teach them, I need to see them struggle. I need to see the look of someone struggling on their face.
In addition, most students won’t put their microphone on. Which means I won’t be able to hear them discuss with each other. Most of the classes I’ve taught to just go to another conference room of their own, often on another video conferencing system than the school’s (mainly Discord). I just can’t hear any more the questions they ask each other and won’t dare to ask me. Of course, I could require them to turn on their cameras but I also understand their reluctance to do so. Most of them live with their parents or in students rooms. Demanding them to turn on the camera feels like an intrusion in their private lives and I highly respect privacy.
Again: we are living in special times. Distance learning is a necessity in such circumstances. But this should be the exception. Not the norm.
So, when I hear more and more people at the GAFAM and at school, praising remote teaching, stating this is the future of teaching, I start to get scared. Tools like Teams do the job in special circumstances. But teaching remotely with Teams is nothing like teaching in a classroom. The whole experience is aweful. For now, we’re doing our job in a degraded mode and we accept it because teaching is a more enjoyable experience when it does not involve a death risk.
But remote teaching means losing two of my most important senses: hearing and sight. Both of which allow me to see when a student is dropping out. Remote teaching should not become the norm. It is not suited for each and every student. It works with students who have a great deal of autonomy. That is to say, first and foremost, with students who have a certain amount of self-confidence and do not easily feel lost in the face of technical complexity. It is these second ones that I care about. And we know that those, tetanized by the lack of confidence, will not dare to ask questions, out of fear of appearing silly.
I once was one of those students. And being in the position I am in today makes me realize that it is not at all a question of talent or aptitude. It’s just a question of feeling empowered and legitimate. I may not always succeed at this. After all, I’m only human. But at least I try. And I don’t want the tools to become a burden in this task.
To me, remote teaching should always be reserved for exceptional situation. Or we risk losing students along the way who are potentially gifted, but whom circumstances have prevented from revealing themselves.