A Faustian Bargain While Paradise Was Lost
Johan Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (1808) chronicled the titular character’s bargain, in which he traded something of superior moral or spiritual significance (his convictions or his soul), for attractive or material benefits. On the surface, e-learning seemed like an innovative idea and another option for expanding education outside the parameters of the physical classroom into the virtual world. In many respects, this was and is true. However, every educator will also tell you that the ideal delivery mechanism and atmosphere for teaching and learning is in-person instruction. Regardless of these polar opposites, when there is no choice in the matter, a Faustian bargain must suffice. The debate prior to 2020 changed with the application of the words mandatory and emergency. It was altered from an imposition of policy to an undeniable fact of the global pandemic framed by the additional terms of pivoting, adjusting, and hybridization. The following six hurdles became living paradoxes for all of the stakeholders in education, as they presented chasms of defeat and opportunities for innovation and success. These barriers had to be breached in order for students and teachers to be moderately effective.
There still remains a grand assumption by proponents of e-learning that by the time students enter secondary school they are tech savvy enough to engage in simple to complex IT operations. Simply creating, naming, and saving a document, integrating and formatting images, and working with various software to make documents, spreadsheets, and presentations are quite daunting for many students. More difficult operations include editing videos, participating in online forums with uploaded evidence of learning, and posting videos embedded in submissions. This knowledge was assumed in a mandatory e-learning model. Just because students might have a smartphone—that is extremely intuitive, repetitive, and part of a student’s working socio-technical competencies—does not mean they have an automatic link to the aforementioned required skills for e-learning. Even with direct in-person instruction, a vast amount of class time was and is spent on tech support, from the ultra-simple to the challenging. Teachers needed to streamline delivery mechanisms and approaches to submitting work. Problematic to this hurdle was the fact that varying degrees of direct parent/guardian involvement were required to facilitate this process. Some programs designed for secondary usage failed in their appropriation for elementary school simply due to multiple-step processes and organizational structures. Many teachers innovated shortcuts and simple techniques for these programs to work for their younger classes.
Everyone has the Internet; it’s like having a radio or television. Not true. According to Statistics Canada’s Report of Internet Usage in Canada (2018): Overall, 94% of Canadians had home Internet access. Among those who did not have home Internet access, reasons included the cost of Internet service (28%) and equipment (19%), and the unavailability of Internet service (8%). While 94% is a great figure, there were, and continue to be, a surprising number of students who do not have access at home or have insufficient technology to fully engage in these courses. Often as a teacher, I heard: My computer is too slow; we don’t have a microphone; my parents disabled the video camera, or we do not have a camera. My fellow teachers, above all, will understand this aspect of the access hurdle: My printer is not working, so I could not get the assignment to you. The scourge of faulty printers affecting the in-person classroom was pale in comparison to the realization that even modern high-speed Internet connectivity was hampered by the realities of geography and the expansion of what was once deemed the Witching Hour, an over-use of bandwidth at a given time, became an established daily fact. The trapeze-like balancing of asynchronous and synchronous instruction to meet this reality by both the virtual classroom teacher and the embattled household truly redefined the adage of flexibility in the face of adversity.
LEARNING GAP HURDLE
There is no universally dedicated Computer Science course in the elementary-level curriculum to create a wider foundation to build the necessary skills required for mandatory e-learning. Some schools have a coding club, as an initiative by their school librarian, or have chrome books in the classroom, but while these are noble efforts, they are not process-driven; rather, they teach, as in coding the beginnings of a terrific skillset, or as with chrome books or other laptops, encourage learning by a peer-assisting-peer model, complemented by a high frequency of raised hands. Online learning was often characterized by a sea of dark screens, and the raised hands of in-person learning were stifled by this new reality. The peer-to-peer model tended to be overwhelmed by an atmosphere where personal engagement was largely predicated upon the technological setup and supports of the individual student(s).
Technology in the classroom has often forsaken the rudimentary skills of Language Arts and is largely focused on the final product, even if the teacher has the best of intentions found through descriptive and constant feedback with an emphasis on process. Prior to the pandemic, technology was well on its way to transitioning from a finishing tool to the primary means of construction. Competency acquisition, assumed to occur through osmosis, trial and error, and observation, was often sacrificed for the time required to produce a final product. Online learning did lend itself to the possibility of phased projects, as each segment could be focused on as a marker of time and achievement. Innovative educators used asynchronous learning to further the mindset of planning and production through a phased model approach. Many teachers further chunked their projects and tended to focus on the development paradigm, rather than the final product; thus, reversing the direction technology had been taking prior to mandatory online learning. While this had been best practice, perhaps the need for a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning furthered the use of phases to create projects.
Much like standardized testing, e-learning benefits a narrow scope of learners. The problem, as one of my cousins who worked in tech support, used to say, The difficulty is often found between the chair and the keyboard. For over a decade, many educational “experts” have touted the end of homework and deadlines. E-learning operates on a deadline model. If students do not have an Individualized Education Plan (I.E.P.) permitting more time as an accommodation, they are subject to quick and frequent deadlines. These courses have very finite endings, and to their credit, are incremental (each unit builds on the competencies of the other). Ironically, should a student fall behind on a unit or section, this will affect future achievement. Even discussion forums cannot foster the essential human equation of relationship and communication many learners need to succeed. Courses which require in-depth thought, reflection, feedback, and the benefit of peer-to-peer and peer-to-teacher constant interaction are deficient. Assessment as a rich, living dynamic cannot possibly be fully realized, and, thus, product tends to triumph over a robust process-driven paradigm that is grounded in sufficient time for reflection and revision. Even adults prefer the alternate definition of e-learning (everyone learning together).
Learning is a human calculation predicated on emotional, social, mental, and intellectual engagement. This is precisely where elementary educators are at their finest in the classroom but were forced into unnatural scenarios online. Placing temporal limits on synchronous sessions rendered an undue burden upon these educators. Rather, the quality of engagement would, and is, a better barometer of this type of learning were it to be deemed necessary again. Kudos to teachers who used animation, puppetry, and dynamic lessons to meet prescribed temporal limits, but quality should not be predicated upon a set time limit. Students at any grade level will not effectively learn if all four components are not present.
Many of my professional colleagues and friends find it extremely difficult to take an e-learning course, as they have enough sense and self-discipline to know that they will not be able to keep to the submissions schedule, devote at least six hours a day, and endure the amount of pontification in the required time to commit to discussion forums. This reality is magnified for high school students. A significant depreciation of quality over time was clearly observable in e-learning courses. Time management is a layered competency requiring personal growth and maturity; it is not the result of a workshop. It was also a built-in frustration for the maintenance of deadlines for online work. This needed to change from Due Dates to Date Ranges. In terms of elementary school, this type of time management was difficult to teach and model due to the many obstacles found in technology and accessibility.
E-learning has been touted as a form of freedom for secondary students who might otherwise be engaged in athletics or arts outside of school hours. Evidence of learning through a process-driven curriculum should not entirely exist beyond the classroom. Issues of plagiarism and assistance are much harder to detect by an e-learning teacher. There is also the perpetuated myth that e-learning would free up time and increase focus on in-school subjects. While this might be true in the summer session, this was not the case during the last two academic years. The temporal hurdle would be most damaging for students who authentically contribute to the household’s income because the time required to succeed would be restricted by school and employment hours combined. While saving for a car or post-secondary education are certainly noble pursuits, I am referring to low-income students whose labour goes directly toward the survival of the household. Mandatory e-learning cloaks itself in agency and equality, but upon lifting the veil, reveals gross inequity.
Sometimes history presents us with no other choice than to shake hands with Faust’s legacy. What becomes folly is when we accept the modern colloquial phrase, It is what it is, and choose to do nothing. A truer admission of mediocrity, I know not. Problematic to the enterprise of e-learning were the circumstances in which it occurred. Firstly, as an option for regular and summer sessions for secondary and some intermediate students; it seemed like an innovative and acceptable alternative for learning should one wish to participate. Educators and administrators were arguably aware of the aforementioned hurdles. To be fair, they could, to some degree, all be remedied in smaller controlled cases and defined populations, such as within one course. However, when the twin spectres of mandatory and emergency necessity were put upon e-learning, the paradigm completely changed. Designating something mandatory, or suddenly deploying it as an emergency measure, without the foundational building blocks for growth and success restricted academic progress, stifled perseverance, and upended resiliency. Take this analogy: Most children wish to eventually drive; they are enthusiastic and, like my son, watch every move I make while driving. Simply handing him the car keys and asking him for a ride to the store is essentially the paradox of mandatory or emergency deployed e-learning. No doubt, he and some of his peers would be able to do it, because of prior experience, a high frequency of exposure and ownership of the technology, and self-discipline resulting in an ability to complete the task. Many others would quit before turning on the car, leave prior to exiting the driveway, or walk away from a road incident—all with a legitimate fear of driving or reluctance to do so again. The good news is, like Faust, the innovative educators of Canada strive on, and to paraphrase part of what von Goethe stated two centuries ago, “They have achieved redemption for a system besieged by a Faustian bargain.” They should be recognized for their immense creativity, sacrifice, and devotion to keeping alive the human calculation of learning.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Manfred J. von Vulte
Manfred J. von Vulte B.A., B.ED., M.A., OCT is the published author of numerous articles, as well as two children’s works, a history book, and an educational guide on the use of comic books and experiential learning for parents and teachers. Manfred has been teaching for over twenty years and has been with Durham Catholic District School Board since 2017.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2022 issue.