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The future is e-learning? Featuring dr Tomasz Gajderowicz

Remote learning diagnosis is short and painful. ‘Nonsense,’ parents write in the recent collective letter to Polish Minister of Science and Education Przemysław Czarnek. Their frustration goes through the roof.

However, although feeling powerless, parents share not only the stories of the online learning failure but also a proposal of how to solve it. While the ladder is to ‘organise the lessons according to the aims of education systems i.e to support children’s development in achieving full physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and social competence.’ The image of the lessons includes ‘eyes-gymnastics,’ chess playing, and PowerPoint presentations in physical education lessons. But this is just a drop in the ocean.

Yet, in the vastness of negative opinions and unfavourable comments about the educational system’s inadequacy, it’s more often said that e-learning will go beyond the pandemic and overtake at least partially if not the whole future of education.

Is it likely to happen, and what will the cost be? I asked Dr Tomasz Gajderowicz, vice-president of the Evidence Institute and lecturer at the Faculty of Economic Sciences at the University of Warsaw. After listening to a podcast episode in which he debunked the myths about effective education, I decided there will be no better than him to guide us through that process in the light of current circumstances.

What can we lose?

Let’s start with thinking about what went wrong and what would need to be solved first if we were to switch to the digital form of education? Would that even be something worth striving towards?

‘Most certainly, at least in the short run, it would not be a change for the better,’ Gajderowicz puts forward, although immediately adds that ‘digital learning entails a series of innovations but comes with huge social costs.’ He suggests we should not seek to turn towards digital learning. The best outcomes could be achieved through the so-called ‘hybrid education,’ which is said to provide ‘the most valuable aspects of classroom teaching’ such as face-to-face peer interaction and contact with the teachers with extensive use of digital tools.

Yet, these exact elements were indicated as the most neglected by both the primary school students and those graduating from high school ever since the switch to digital learning. The number of teenagers suffering from depression increased by 44% from 2018, while 20% reported suicidal thoughts. Many of those who already suffered from some type of mental illness noticed worsening symptoms. Although many teachers spontaneously rose to the challenge and offered a space for conversation, prolonged isolation and Zoom meetings will not serve the wellbeing and mental health stability of the young people.

Another major limitation of distance learning that we read about in the Librus report gathered from roughly 21 000 Polish parents and students is restricted access to electronic devices. Approximately one-third of the respondents admitted being unable to arrange a separate device for their children, while only 30% own a laptop camera.

Although some measures aiming to provide sufficient electronic equipment and fill the digital literacy gap have been successfully implemented on regional levels ever since the publication of the year-long report. Digital Centre data from the beginning of 2021 claims that 48% of teachers had lost contact with at least one of their students. These numbers, along with the 6th largest in Europe digital exclusion of 5 million citizens, may lead to greater issues such as deeper educational stratification and ‘derailment’ of the weakest.

Having been scrutinised by the year-long struggles of the teachers, parents, and students, we know that this is already happening. ’Turns out that while the top students perform now even better than in traditional education, those with insufficient access to computers or help from parents, or struggling to find a calm study space are losing much more,’ says Gajderowicz. Those requiring to be more controlled also declared difficulties to focus or stay on track with the workload. Hence, when it comes to governance passivity, ‘We are basically committing a crime on youth development.’

And that is the biggest problem that the Polish educational system needs to face right now. However, none of the solutions proposed by the experts is applied consecutively. ‘The government after a year of some kind of discussions only analyses and diagnoses the incoming data but, the programs put into practice are unsatisfactory,’ comments Gajderowicz.

Another thing that should be dealt with systematically is the digital truants' phenomenon. ‘Many students persistently turn off their camera and disappear for most of the lessons,’ reveals the Digital Centre. That is because, in many schools, a requirement for ongoing audio-visual contact was dismissed due to the limited access to electronic equipment of many students. This often comes with the issue of ‘missing’ children with which the teachers lost contact.

What can we gain?

Fair enough, but there also is another side of the coin. At the end of the day, there must be at least a trivial reason why some refer to digital learning as the education of the future. Among all the apparent disadvantages of this method, or rather, governmental and social inability to cope with its consequences, more and more experts and teachers identify positive aspects of such a teaching method. For some formerly silent and alienated students, distant learning turned out to be a starting point for activation and bigger participation in the lessons. For others, it opened up new development paths.

An underestimated teaching body who did their utmost by retraining themselves overnight cannot be overlooked either. The crisis exemplified their responsibility, dedication, and willingness to reinvent their teaching methods independently. Since the primary and middle-stage educators had not received any official training, they raised in solidarity and smoothly exchanged their observations and tools with one another. ‘The transition to remote education changed the teaching profession upside down, but also the process of studying,’ comments Gajderowicz and continues by bringing forward another positive innovation accompanying the shift - higher utilisation of online platforms and digital tools.

‘The role of these platforms is enormous, and we want to benefit from them at most, but the temptation of today is to lean towards what is trendy and shiny instead of the actual effective learning techniques.’ And by those, he means consistent and very often ‘boring’ process of memorisation and thinking, and transferring what we have learned to the long-term memory. ‘It physically takes a lot for the brain to consolidate gained knowledge, the brain needs to burn a lot of glucose, but this is the process by which we learn.’ Gejderowicz contends yet agrees that using online tools for formative assessments and quizzes could boost the learning process. Retrieval practice with interleaving – one of the most effective learning techniques may be heavily supported by technology.

What else could we take away from digital education for the post-pandemic era? Some experts speak about the cross-disciplinary approach's power, which enables the educators to create links and move through the study areas with more ease and flexibility, thus drawing cause and effect relationships to the real-life problem. After all, we no longer need to learn things by heart. Instead, we need comparative and analytical skills with a human-interest approach. We need to be quick-thinkers, efficient, and flexible. These postulates would be realised thanks to improving software and apps enabling to mix the contents of many subjects, for instance, incorporate programming into language lessons. Traditional classroom-based teaching enriched with these online tools could also relieve teachers' pressure by limiting the time spent on revising.

The pandemic has made us experiment with the education we have known ever since the 19th century and rethink its role in a rapidly changing society. I believe the positive aspects of a year-long experiment do not outweigh the social, mental, and physical costs paid by the drained teachers, less trained students, and distressed parents doing double-shifts as home educators. Even if we have discovered some new methods that would help us create perfect or, at least, more satisfying educational programmes meeting the current labour market, we should look at the broader picture. What is our top priority; cost-cutting or providing well-rounded, equal education? Betting on the finest individuals or taking care of the weakest ones? And finally, do we even need to go all-in and carry this experiment forward?

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