Why Even a Pandemic Can’t Make Remote Learning Work - WhoWhatWhy

Why Even a Pandemic Can’t Make Remote Learning Work

Girl, school bus, COVID-19, remote learning
Reading Time: 18 minutes

So much of the pandemic lockdown debate pits school closures against bar and restaurant restrictions, with tempers flaring on all sides. 

But one unanticipated benefit of this heated debate is that it has focused attention on a question rarely discussed outside academia. While we all know what bars and restaurants do for us, what is the real purpose of schools in modern society? 

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Justin Reich, director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, former faculty associate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, and author of Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education.

Part of the problem, Reich argues, is the multiple roles that schools have come to play in  nutrition, housing, child care, and vital social services. 

The pandemic reminds us that the social value of schooling cannot be maintained simply by switching from in-person to remote learning — because traditional education is only one aspect of what Reich calls the “political project” of schools. 

Few people understand, Reich says, that the school’s core competency today revolves around the social safety net. Trying to adapt schooling to a pandemic-battered world without being honest about this fact is a recipe for failure.

Reich takes us back a decade to a time when many believed that education was about to be reinvented by technology. He points out that that prediction was as off the mark as Edison’s prophecy in 1913 that all textbooks would soon be replaced by film. 

Reich explains the inherent conflicts between technology and curriculum, why most teachers are not up to the challenge of virtual education, and why it’s so hard to reconcile market forces with something that is supposed to be a public good.

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. It sometimes seems that the two biggest conflicts surrounding the pandemic are the closure of restaurants and the closure and opening — and reclosure — of schools. It all shines a spotlight on what we really expect from our schools. How essential they are to society beyond just their core mission of education, and how unprepared they are both technically and psychologically for remote learning, innovation, and transformation. The jury is still out on whether they can rise to the current challenge. And if they do, whether it will be a temporary fix or have lasting and positive consequences.
Jeff Schechtman: In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we’re going to talk to Justin Reich about education. He’s an educational researcher. He’s the director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab. He’s the host of his own Teach Lab podcast, as well as five open online courses. He’s a former fellow and faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, and he’s the author of, Failure to Disrupt, a book he wrote before the pandemic about the limitations of technology on education. It is my pleasure to welcome Justin Reich to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. Justin, thanks so much for joining us.
Justin Reich: Thanks for having me, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: I suppose the best place to begin is to talk about what is the role of education today in a modern society. How would you define that?
Justin Reich: Sure. Education has this incredibly capacious set of goals that society has placed upon it. We want our schools to do an almost unimaginable number of things. And actually, the pandemic has revealed in many ways, just how many those things are. We want schools to provide pastoral care, to keep kids safe during the day. We want schools to feed kids. We want schools to play a role in frontline healthcare and healthcare screening. We want it to teach students, and we want it to teach students a wide variety of subjects from history and English language arts, reading, and math, and science and social science. We want the school systems to teach kids not to bully each other, to respect the flag and be patriotic, to be critical citizens, to have no sex. But if you do have sex, to have sex in certain healthy ways.
Justin Reich: If you start enumerating all of the things that we want schools to do, it’s a massive list. And it’s a political project. In many places, in most times, we don’t think of schools as all that political because they just sort of go about doing whatever it is that they were doing, that communities have sort of come together and negotiated between all these competing tensions. But there are indeed tensions underneath that surface. And at times like pandemics or the Black Lives Matter movement, or other kinds of things like that, we see the tensions and the political project of schools come to the surface.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there too much complexity in the system? Is that part of the problem? One of the things, I’m sitting out here in California, and one of the things you hear always in terms of start-ups or Silicon Valley or business is focus, focus, focus. Figure out what it is that you do best and laser focus on that. It’s not one of the problems that we’re asking education to do too much today, and that we need to bifurcate the process?
Justin Reich: Yeah, we are assuredly asking schools to do too much. And if you look at projects like Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, this is a set of about a hundred blocks in Harlem in which Geoffrey Canada, with a bunch of partners, is trying to provide for some of the nation’s poorest children, the kinds of resources that are available to the nation’s wealthiest children. And you do that not just by improving schools, but by improving healthcare for new parents, by improving mental health, and healthcare, and dental care for children and families, by providing a wide range of social services, by addressing issues of housing and nutrition. And we ask schools to do so much of that.
Justin Reich: I mean, one thing that has been driving me crazy during the pandemic is politicians who have been making claims like, I think Jeb Bush wrote an editorial in the Washington Post, which said that schools should be helping families provide access to technology and broadband. Your local superintendent is not going to be rolling fiber optic cable up the holler to homes in rural … dirt roads and things like that.
Justin Reich: We cannot ask schools to do all of these things. If we want to recognize that broadband is no longer a luxury good, but an essential utility, then it’s going to be municipalities and states and federal organizations that connect every home in America to broadband, just like in the early 20th century we connected every home to electricity. But it would’ve been perplexing and bizarre in the early 20th century to say, ‘Well, we really need schools to make sure that power gets out to all the homes so that kids can read at night.’ Yeah, what we expect of schools who are under great strain to just do the job of educating children is very striking to me.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there sufficient, and this gets off topic a little bit, but is there sufficient pushback to this within the educational community? Is there sufficient pushback to this idea of schools trying to do too much?
Justin Reich: Well, I think one issue that perhaps creates some of the kind of feedback loop here around this is that educators, particularly those working in urban settings, are keenly aware of how fragile the social safety net is for families and children. And so in the midst of a pandemic, the natural inclination is to say, ‘Of course we are going to find a way to feed all the children. We are going to do everything we possibly can for kids who are depending on breakfast and lunch, and sometimes dinner, getting that at schools. We’re going to somehow make that happen.’ And it’s not necessarily appropriate for educators to, in the midst of that, throw their hands up and say, ‘Wait a minute, this is crazy.’ The nation’s nutrition policy should not … preventing hunger should not rest on schools alone, especially when we’re in the midst of trying to completely reconfigure our systems to be able to provide remote and distance learning. It’s really up to us as citizens to demand that our municipalities and our states do more.
Jeff Schechtman: On the other hand, the pandemic maybe provides an opportunity that might’ve been lacking before, to begin to address these things, simply because the problem is so much larger within this context. And while it may have just gone on kind of below the surface and everybody going along before, this really brings it out into the open in ways that make it clearer, it seems, that these things need to be addressed separately.
Justin Reich: I think that’s exactly right. I have a colleague at Harvard, Paul Reville, who runs a lab called the Education Redesign Lab, and he encourages mayors to create what he calls Children’s Cabinets. People who are leaders in municipal government, who cover social services, education, transportation, library services, all the different ways that we can support families and children, and try to have them be more collaborative with one another. In part, I think with the explicit goal of saying, ‘Let’s make sure we don’t dump all of these expectations for taking care of the nation’s children — our city’s children — on schools, let’s really make this a community effort.’
Jeff Schechtman: Where does technology fit into this equation? You talked about broadband, certainly, and we’re seeing this whole exercise in distance learning now during the pandemic. What are we learning from it, and what does it tell us about the potential for technology to help transform some aspects of education?
Justin Reich: Well, over the last two decades, education technology evangelists have made really striking claims about how technology would have the capacity to transform schools. Well look at what happened in all these other sectors of journalism and finance and our friendships, our social relationships. This happened in schools. So Clay Christensen, who was a Harvard business school professor in 2009, the founder of the Theory of Disruptive Innovation, wrote a book called, Disrupting Class, that said that ‘By 2019, half of all 6–12 classes would be held online, that they would cost a third as much to offer to children and that they would be better.’ Sal Khan had a TED talk in 2011, I think, which said, ‘Let’s reinvent education using video. Let’s sit kids down individually in front of computers, have them watch personalized sequences of videos and practice problems, and they’ll learn math that way. And if they get far enough, then we’ll have teachers who gather them all up and do interesting project-based learning with them.’
Justin Reich: There was a TED prize winner, Sugata Mitra, who said, ‘We don’t even need schools. We just provide students with laptops and connections to the internet, they could teach anything themselves.’ And these things sort of didn’t come to pass over the last two decades and, in a sense, these education technology systems were competing with traditional schools. But in March of 2020, 1.6 billion children around the world were sent home because of the pandemic, and education technology wasn’t competing with a traditional system, it was competing with a hobbled pandemic collapsed system. And it still wasn’t particularly successful. I mean, if you go around the world and ask people, ‘How has remote learning gone for you? Where has technology stepped in to be helpful?’ I think you would get many more stories of frustration than triumphant success.
Jeff Schechtman: Isn’t that in part because it has really not had an opportunity to operate long enough to really find its way. I mean, again, if we put it into the sector of business or technology … Amazon had to go 12 years before it turned a profit. I mean, online education/remote learning may take a long time to find its legs.
Justin Reich: That’s possible. The project of teaching people with computers is as old as computers. So for the past 60 years, there’ve been computer scientists and learning scientists that have partnered to try to create technologies for learning and their success has consistently been incremental, rather than transformative. Thomas Edison was in, I think it was in 1913 or so, he said, ‘In 10 years, I predict that all of the textbooks, printed materials in schools, will be replaced by film.’ And then 10 years later, he said, in 1923, in another, I think FCC reporting commission, ‘Well, I think in about 20 years, we’re going to have replaced all of the textbooks with film.’ And here we are 100 years later, and that project still hasn’t come to pass. So I think for some of these things, it’s not that we haven’t waited long enough, it’s that it turns out that for lots of kinds of things that we want lots of people to learn, technology is not nearly as helpful as some of the traditional methods of instruction that we have.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent are there individuals that are trying to take advantage of the current situation and try and find new ways of doing what’s been equally traditional, as you say, for the past 40, 50, 60 years, that there’ve been computers?
Justin Reich: Yeah, I think there are lots of places … I mean, I think what we’ll find at the end of the pandemic is that many, many educators — there are about three and a half million K-12 teachers, there are about maybe that many educators in higher education — and they’re going to find really interesting applications for technologies that are out there that in some incremental way make learning a little bit better. I myself have been shocked at how little progress, in some ways, large online learning education technology providers have made during the pandemic. I mean, especially last spring, I was thinking, ‘Man, there’s a whole bunch of introductory economics professors all around the country, all around the world, who are now being sent home from their campuses and have very little experience in online learning. And I mean, we’re going to ask them to sit in their home offices in front of a webcam and make up a brand new online class. And there’s no way they can do a good job. This is not a reasonable expectation.’
Justin Reich: But all around the world, there are these providers of massive open online courses, these large-scale, free online courses, that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars building introductory economics classes. My hunch in March was that lots and lots of people in higher education would say, ‘Well don’t keep trying to teach your class, just take one of these … point your students to one of these online classes and support them in doing so.’ And I have been really shocked at the degree to which, overwhelmingly, universities have not taken that route, and overwhelmingly students haven’t asked them to.
Justin Reich: There’s no groundswell of demand of people saying, ‘Please let us do these online classes. Your Zoom classes are terrible.’ There has been much more groundswell demand that says, ‘No, no, we still kind of want to keep doing Zoom class. We know it’s not that great, but we’d rather be connected with our professor, with our institution, with our classmates, than sent off to some impersonal online learning environment.’ And I think there’s something about that human connection, as brittle as it is over a video conference line, that makes it more compelling to many students than independent, self-paced, asynchronous online learning.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you think that will change over time? Do you think that’s a generational shift that will happen perhaps with the next generation?
Justin Reich: I don’t think so. Here’s what I think … I think there will be a steady incremental growth in the number of people exposed to and participating in online learning. There’s no question everyone is having a different pandemic. And there are lots of people who had only done — lots of people, but a small percentage — who’ve only done face to face learning, who experienced online learning for the first time and said to themselves, ‘Holy smokes, this is great.’ We’ve heard a lot from students from historically marginalized backgrounds that may have experienced racism and bigotry in their face-to-face schools, who now get to study online at home in the loving arms of their family. And they say, ‘This is terrific.’
Justin Reich: But I think one of the things that we know about people is that … very few people natively do particularly well in independent, self-paced, asynchronous, online learning, particularly around topics that they’re not particularly interested in, but they’re studying because it’s some kind of requirement. It’s very, very difficult for people to create the condition, have the motivation, have the self-regulation to do that. And our brains don’t change quickly. They don’t change in generations. What helps us stay focused and stay on task are all the social structures that are created in schools to provide the motivation, the encouragement, the support of peers, and the faculty members to help them persist. So I think there will be incrementally more online learning after the pandemic, but my hunch is that when it’s safe to do so, people are going to be very eager to snap back to the classroom practices and being with each other.
Jeff Schechtman: Are there two separate conversations that should be going on here? One with respect to K-12, and one with respect to higher education?
Justin Reich: Yes, and I think there should be different conversations in math and in social studies and in early language acquisition, and then later language acquisition. One of the things that’s challenging about thinking through technology and education is that the education system is just immensely complex. Somewhere today there’s a seventh grade earth science teacher who’s teaching the first unit on plate tectonics. And somewhere else in a college somewhere somebody’s teaching an advanced Arabic student. And the needs of those faculty and students are incredibly variable and our technologies are very uneven. I think one of the mistakes that education technology evangelists have made has been describing education technology as sweeping, as magic bullets, as kind of one size fits all, when instead the tools that we build are much more particular.
Justin Reich: We have pretty great automated assessment at this point for detecting whether or not you’ve pronounced a foreign word correctly or not. That is a useful thing in introductory language acquisition. We don’t have very good tools to figure out whether or not you’ve written an essay that has a compelling analysis of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. We don’t have technologies that evaluate reasoning from evidence particularly well. Instead of having these kind of like the sort of Swiss army knife technology tools, we have very particular pegs that fit into very particular holes in our education system.
Jeff Schechtman: Will we see then a greater nexus between curriculum and technology? Will curriculum change to suit technology and technology adapt to specific curriculum?
Justin Reich: It’s remarkable how conservative our systems are around curriculum. For instance, it strikes me that computer programming and computer science are incredibly useful things to learn and we have this kind of national emergency that overwhelmingly white and Asian boys, and then men, find pathways into computer science. And women, and black, and Latino, and native American people don’t at nearly the same proportion. And it leads us to developing these software products that do not serve all people particularly well. And it seems to me it would behoove us as a country to try to be more inclusive in that, and that would require curriculum changes. But it turns out that our curriculum is so overstuffed and our kind of disciplinary training systems for teachers so well set, that it’s very hard to change these things. Schools have a math department and an English department and a world language department, and there’s a set of standards, there’s a set of textbook materials.
Justin Reich: There’s a set of ways that we were already trained. So it is possible to change the curriculum with kind of devoted efforts that often take years and generations, and those changes shouldn’t necessarily be driven just by the availability of technology. They should be driven by educators in their communities reflectively looking at the world and saying, ‘What do young people need to know to thrive in the future? How would we prepare ourselves as educators to teach that well?’ And then as a secondary question, ‘To what extent can technology help us achieve those goals?’
Jeff Schechtman: And is it your sense that there is resistance to technology? Let’s just say prepandemic for the moment, resistance to technology among those within the teaching establishment?
Justin Reich: So I typically put teachers into three groups. There are teachers who really thrive on experimentation and innovation, that part of their professional practice that they find really satisfying is trying new things. That’s probably a relatively small group. The largest group I would call patient pragmatists. Teachers over the last century have been barraged by fads, by innovations, the turnover rates of principals and superintendents in our school systems is incredibly high. So teachers are always being subjected to the latest new thing that we want them to do. And I think it’s a normal, healthy reaction of most teachers to say, ‘I’m going to wait this one out and see whether or not it sticks. I will sort of minimally comply with whatever this new thing is until I have good evidence that people are really going to stick with it and that it’s benefiting my students.’ So I think most teachers are willing to adopt anything that will help their students learn and grow, but they are not willing to sort of leap off the cliff every time a superintendent or principal points them in new directions.
Justin Reich: And then the third group of teachers are folks who I think are actively resistant to change. And I’ve spent a lot of time as an education technology consultant, trying to help people integrate technology in thoughtful ways in schools. And I very rarely run into folks that are sort of cranky or angry or Luddite. They just really strongly believe that they’ve honed their craft over X years, that school systems have honed their craft over decades, and the odds that we’ll do something better than that well-refined practice with some new technology is low relative to the amount of time that it’ll take up. And sometimes those resisters will change their perspective, but I’ve come to respect a lot the educators that say, ‘Hold on here. Just because this is new, is this really going to be better?’
Jeff Schechtman: Well certainly we can look at some of the other sectors we were talking about earlier and we saw similar resistance, but it’s the old classic, resistance is futile because ultimately in those other sectors they were overtaken by disruption.
Justin Reich: Yes, I think many folks have argued that education should follow a similar path as business sectors, market-based sectors, and there’s lots of good reasons, I think, to believe that that is not the right way to think about education. In part, because it’s a public good rather than a market good or service. And in part, because there are just an incredible number of stakeholders that are involved in decisions that we make about how we should raise our children. When you decide whether to buy your news from a newspaper or from a website, that’s a different kind of individual market transaction than a community deciding how all of the different children in that community, with all of the different teachers, and all the different schools that schools have, ought to be educated.
Jeff Schechtman: What about places where experimentation can go on? Where there can be the kind of environment to just try some of these things, to incorporate technology with new methods, and just see what happens?
Justin Reich: Yeah, I think those are great ideas. There are plenty of charter schools, there are plenty of private schools that try to distinguish themselves in the education market by doing that. I mean most school systems have pockets of innovation established within them and having worked with many, many schools and school districts all across the country, I can tell you that they appear in all kinds of places. You’ll find that the third grade team in your local elementary school is really enthusiastic about experimentation and practice. You’ll find that there’s one middle school, in a relatively conservative district, that’s trying new things and doing them differently.
Justin Reich: And I mean, America, relative to many other countries, does have a sort of, let a thousand flowers bloom kind of approach. The interesting thing is that oftentimes those really interesting pockets of innovation don’t lead to scaled systemic change, even when they do come up with ideas that have the potential to work better, or where there are successful innovations they tend to remain local in their sort of purest form and then become distributed more diffusely in other kinds of places.
Justin Reich: And you can look at all kinds … non-technology practices, you can look at something like Montessori approaches to early childhood education. There are a very small number of purely Montessori schools, and there are lots and lots of preschools and kindergarten, first grade, second grade teachers, who use some set of practices that are adopted from Montessori methods without really being Montessori schools. And I think a lot of technology-based learning, competency-based approaches, project-based learning, end up being the same kind of thing. There’s sort of a handful of schools or places that adopt these new ideas with great fidelity and passion and sometimes great effectiveness, and then when they’re diffused more widely throughout the school system, they usually travel in less pure forms, much to the chagrin of their founders and evangelists.
Jeff Schechtman: Does the educational system, in general, need a better way for those best practices to be conveyed around the country?
Justin Reich: Yes, that is a substantial challenge. There’s 130,000 schools that are nested in 13,000 school districts. One particular challenge in transmitting good ideas is that for a long time we’ve hoped, and technology is really pinned to many of these hopes, ‘What if we could build a mass software program that was better at teaching than traditional instruction, and we could prove it worked in one place and then we could scale it up and spread it around to all kinds of other places?’ That kind of prove in one place and scale in lots of other places often proves not to work very well because what makes things work in one place is the commitment, the negotiation, the professional learning of the people in that place. And usually for a good idea to spread it needs to be adapted and it needs to evolve to be able to operate in a different condition.
Justin Reich: The things that are going to work in urban schools in Oakland are not going to work in the same way in rural schools in the Napa Valley and so forth, because there are different teachers and different students in different contexts. But it is true that the teaching profession lacks, say what the medical profession has of these professional societies, like the American Academy of Pediatricians, which takes some responsibility for saying, ‘We’re pretty sure that this is the best way to treat childhood fevers. And we encourage all pediatricians to adopt that approach.’ There’s not the same kind of professional association that takes responsibility for codifying best practices in education, and it’s hard to think about how you would create something sort of brand new like that.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally, Justin, as you look down the road, even just a couple of years, what do you see is the one takeaway from this whole remote learning experience in the pandemic?
Justin Reich: Probably the most important thing to take away is to recognize that schools right now play an incredibly important role, an incredibly central role, not only in youth development, but in sort of every aspect of youth upbringing. And it’s not realistic for us to ask schools to take on all of these challenges, nor will there be new technologies that come along, that sweep away these complex social problems. If we want to raise the next generation of children more healthily, more civilly, more effectively than we’ve done in the past, we’re going to, as a whole society, have to think about what are all the different ways that we support young people.
Justin Reich: How do we support the adults, the teachers, educators, social workers, that support young people and give them the resources, the professional learning, and where it’s available, the technologies and new ideas to help them do their work better? I think the pandemic has revealed particularly yawning inequalities between how we provide those services to the most affluent and least affluent young people in our society. And it’s a real tragedy that I hope that we will address better in the years ahead.
Jeff Schechtman: Justin Reich. Justin, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Justin Reich: Thanks for having me on Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

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