Online Education in the Covid-19 Crisis: “It’s Like Coke Dealers Handing Out Free Samples”

Economist Gordon Lafer describes a race against the education technology industry to do what’s right for America’s kids

Economist Gordon Lafer, author of The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time, has delved deeply into the highly-orchestrated political activities of corporate-backed groups set on changing the American education system in ways that he believes are detrimental to the country’s future. Lafer, who teaches at the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center, is a member of the Eugene School District Board and once served as senior policy advisor to the Education and Labor Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. He sees the Covid-19 crisis as the perfect opportunity for companies far more interested in the bottom line than student learning to seize America’s education system and turn it into a robotic, one-size-fits-all program where teachers eventually disappear from the scene and students, especially the most vulnerable, get left behind. He joined the Institute for New Economic Thinking for a conversation about what’s at state in online learning and how technology, if properly guided, can be good for students, teachers, and parents.

Lynn Parramore: This crisis differs from previous ones in the abrupt movement to online learning that is affecting so many people. Many are cheering tech companies for providing education platforms during school closures. Yet your work issues a cautionary message – warning that Big Business and corporate-backed groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have coordinated in the past to undermine public education through things like lowering accreditation requirements for teachers, replacing public schools with privately run charters, and – here we come to the Covid-19 moment – to move students to online learning. Is this crisis an opportunity to further their agenda?

Gordon Lafer: I think there’s no question that they view it as a huge opportunity. As you know, I was elected to the board of education in Eugene last year. When the pandemic hit, right away we got a list of all these technology companies that make education software that were offering free access to their products for the duration of the coronavirus crisis. They pitch these offerings as stepping up to help out the country in a moment of crisis. But it’s also like coke dealers handing out free samples.

I can see this in my own school system, where you have pressure from everybody, from students and parents who are saying, okay, seniors need to graduate, and kids need to learn whatever they’re supposed to learn. The easiest thing, the laziest thing to do, is to just get some outside apps and put everybody on that. Well, that’s great for those technology companies and their investors. But it’s terrible for education, partly because so much of education depends on the personal relationship between teachers and students.

LP: Surely that is even more true for the less advantaged students?

GL: That’s right. The kids who are most needy are most in need of an adult point of contact, which is harder to get with online learning. The truth is – and we’ve been talking about this here in Oregon – if we would take the time, and put more work into it, we’re at a point where technology allows much more creative forms of online education than what tech companies are offering.

Parents want somebody who pays attention to their kid. Maybe the kid is shy or has anger problems, whatever it is. The learning platforms the tech companies want aren’t interested in that. They only want to see how fast you do the problem. That’s not going to work for the kids from the most marginalized communities who are not getting education support at home, who come from various kinds of trauma. They, more than anybody, need to be taught by a skilled teacher who knows them as an individual. I think, to some degree, that may be what every parent wants, but teachers will have to take the initiative to create these models.

What makes sense for investors in tech companies, first of all, is uniformity and a product that is scalable. Second of all, they do not want to be dependent on teachers. But online learning doesn’t have to be this way. Technology offers many ways to do it. Unfortunately, the software companies want to do it in this one way that is actually a one-pedagogy-fits-all approach.

In some ways, we may be in a race against the education technology industry, which is just going to try to roll their programs out as fast as they can. In light of that, we really need to work through these better alternatives so we can say, look, this is what we can do instead. We can do something which is much better for everybody’s kids.

LP: What might those creative platforms look like? How might they benefit teachers and students?

GL: There are some interesting ideas that I’ve been talking to people about and that teachers here have been investigating. Suppose you needed to learn seventh-grade English. There might be a teacher who teaches it through poetry. Another teacher might look at it through science fiction or memoir-writing. You could really have more choice for kids, right? Instead of just having your one teacher, you could say, here are three different ways you could learn this material. You can choose because the teachers are online.

Maybe somebody is going to teach elementary school math from the textbook. Another is going to teach it by drawing and allow kids to draw interactively online. Yet another might teach it by saying, I’d like you to go walk around your house and find a shoebox and an egg and a cup, and we can talk about shapes and the relationship of shapes to each other.

We’ve even discussed a possibility where, let’s say a social studies teacher has four classes a day and they’re teaching the same thing four times. Well, they could decide that part of the class – the part that is just repeating a presentation — could be done just once. Everybody could watch that part whenever they want, and that frees up time for the teacher either to have more individual time for phone calls with students or small groups through Zoom chats. You end up with much more personal interaction.

The ironic thing is that we’re at a point where the technology actually enables a lot creative, engaged, teacher-driven education that still maintains, and maybe even strengthens, the personal relationship between teachers and their students.

LP: What is at stake for our kids and the country’s future if we go the one-size-fits all, less engaged route that many tech companies and their investors would prefer?

GL: Well, some kids would do ok with it, but a lot of kids won’t. They won’t be able to learn, and their experience will be one of failure. You can kind of tell how it would happen. While other kids are advancing to the next level, they’re not. And the response to failure provided by the tech company software may not be adequate to that situation. Instead of a teacher helping a student to find a book that makes reading fun while they’re learning phonemes, you might have a program that just offers more drilling. Which is probably not going to help.

You also have to realize that kids, even high school kids, are not going to spend six hours a day sitting in front of a screen doing classes. Some will just stop doing it. In the short-run, I think you’re going to see a lot of problems with that kind of disengagement.

There’s also a huge inequity issue of who has access to Wi-Fi and computers. In the long-run, I think what these companies really want is to say, look, our platforms worked during the crisis, so this is what we should do going forward. We should get rid of teachers. They’ll promote all the reasons why they think it’s better not just for now, but long after the crisis has passed.

LP: Get rid of teachers altogether? How would they get the public to accept that?

GL: One of the things that will help them make that argument is budgets. Assuming we’re in a serious recession for a year or more — that means everybody’s budget is going to get cut. Here in Eugene, the school funding is based on income tax. Whether it’s based on income tax or property tax, you can be sure budgets are going to go down, which means that you’re going to see cuts. Then the tech companies are going to come and say, well, instead of spending $10,000 for a kid to be educated in a classroom, you could spend $7,000 per kid to put them online. The tech companies will be happy, still able to make a 20 percent profit. When you have budget cuts, some people will find this sort of thing becoming more attractive.

LP: In your book, you described ways in which the U.S. public education system has been weakened through corporate lobbying both to “fix” problems that don’t exist and offer inappropriate solutions to those that do. If Covid-19 allows corporations to drive education, could our public education system end up in worse shape? What does this mean to a democratic society and how can Americans push back for a better outcome?

GL: I think it is true that the public education system could end up in worse shape. It’s definitely a moment to try to be creative, and that can mean a lot of things. Something interesting about this particular social issue is that public education is almost the only thing left in America that almost everybody thinks you have a right to just by virtue of living here. Partly because of that, schools have taken on certain kinds of responsibilities that would not obviously be theirs. One of the most obvious ones is feeding kids. So, a lot of kids only get breakfast and lunch because they’re in school. A lot only get mental health counseling or see a nurse because they’re in school. That’s why during the pandemic, you’ll see that a lot of school systems, like my school system, are figuring out ways to keep on providing some of those things, especially meals.

Some schools are designating a spot where kids can come to pick up a bag lunch or something like that, where there’s very little contact to protect against spreading the virus. But we could be thinking about ways to provide food not just for the kids, but for all the neediest families. Maybe through that point of contact we could be distributing assignments that could be followed up by calls from the teacher. We’re thinking through all of these possibilities.

As many people have said, this is uncharted territory. The pandemic reveals class divisions in a very stark way. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If we end up with 20 percent unemployment and a lot of people are homeless because there’s no work, it’s going to be chaotic. These moments can go in a lot of different directions. Unlike most European countries, the whole governmental public system for taking care of people has been so dismantled in the U.S., including education. Stuff gets overwhelmed when lot of people are jobless. Increasingly, the super-rich have plans to isolate themselves from the fallout of these disasters. I would like to think that everybody’s going to organize in a progressive way and make progressive demands on the government, but I don’t know. Let’s hope so.

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