COVID-19 Brings Factory Mindset to Learning

For politicians and economists who have been trained to think in cost-benefit terms, it has long seemed obvious that institutions of learning should migrate online whenever possible. On this way of thinking, the Covid-19 crisis simply sped up the inevitable march towards greater efficiency—a march that will only be complete when every school has an online component.
Certainly, from the perspective of achieving greater optimization by measurable criteria, online education will always win out. After all, virtual learning platforms can operate at a fraction of the cost of a traditional school, saving thousands of dollars in building maintenance and utility costs. Moreover, technology enables education to become a deliverable commodity that can be mass-produced, with decreased inputs and increased outputs. Through digital tools, educators can measure the productivity of their teaching while continually customizing content delivery for greater efficiency.
But what if our unacknowledged assumptions about efficiency are completely wrong? What if some of the most important aspects of education—the bond between student and teacher, the cultivation of curiosity, attentiveness, imagination, and sensitivity to beauty—are not things that can easily be measured by quantifiable criteria? Moreover, what if there are detrimental side effects to virtual learning, and what if these side effects don’t become apparent until a generation or two has passed?
These are sobering questions, and they are made more urgent by preliminary research suggesting that long periods of time spent in front of a screen may be harming students in ways that, while not always quantifiable, should nevertheless be of concern to parents and educators.
Nicholas Carr collected some of this research in his book The Shallows (2010). He synthesized a string of studies showing that material processed through screens goes into a different part of the brain than printed material goes to. Some of the liabilities associated with absorbing information from a screen include:
    • Reduced long-term memory;
    • Erosion of conceptual and contextual thinking;
    • Reduced ability to grasp over-arching narratives of meaning (the big picture);
    • Reduced ability to make connections between different ideas and facts;
    • Reduced ability to put knowledge into schemas.



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