Put Students, Not Screens, at the Center of Post-Pandemic Learning

Online education has a place, but meaningful in-person interactions build the best connections
Painting of Philip II of Spain
Philip II of Spain, seen here in a painting by Sofonisba Anguissola, ruled remotely, but received lots of personal attention while growing up.

In early March 2020, an announcement came over the classroom loudspeaker just after lunch: “Due to the coronavirus, students will be dismissed at two p.m. All classes are cancelled for the rest of the week.” A thunderous cheer went up, as students exploded out of their chairs.

In March 2021, an email came through from the school: “Please find time to be away from your devices this weekend.” Some students said they were spending nine hours a day on their phone, in addition to a day of classes on their laptop.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, hundreds of millions of students and teachers adapted to online learning on the fly. Some families with multiple kids had to buy new computers, even as the parents were losing their jobs. Administrators created new class timetables. Parents stayed home to supervise. They helped figure out where to upload the homework and why the Zoom link wasn’t working. Most slowly got the hang of it, and some even found online learning to be a breath of fresh air.

King Philip II of Spain likely would have embraced the shift to online learning. He was a pioneer in working from home. In the 1500s, he built a massive, austere royal palace known as El Escorial 26 miles outside of Madrid. The walled world inside became his favorite place to live and work. From a wooden desk in a small office, Philip administered the Spanish empire, from the Netherlands and southern Italy to the Americas and the Philippines, which is named after him. Without leaving the Iberian Peninsula from the age of 32 until his death at 71, he governed through a stream of paper, which circulated around the globe. Ruling by the pen, Philip was the most powerful European monarch of his era. He boasted that he ruled the Old World and the New, with two inches of paper.

Through the pandemic, laptops and smartphones have been our two inches of paper. Kitchens, bedrooms, basements, and living rooms have been our small offices, and our homes our El Escorials. Like Philip, teachers experimented with systems of channeling and organizing two inches of paper, especially during the early months of Covid. Amid this trial and error, at times the two inches reached students less as an organized stack than a haphazard flurry. “I have never seen business pile up so often,” said Philip in 1584—and many parents and students said the same about homework, as teachers worked to moderate students’ workload. Philip managed a New World he never saw; teachers and students finished classes without ever meeting in person. We stayed glued to our small digital two inches of paper, lest our domain in the world of virtual learning fall into disorder.

The Screen-Centered Map

Philip II's study in El Escorial.
Philip II’s study in El Escorial.

Philip spent a great deal of time in the Royal Library consulting with geographers and cartographers. Here he built a mental map stretching into the far corners of the known world, by peering through the window of maps and globes.

During the pandemic, screens became our window into the world of school. This changed our mental map of the classroom. In a physical classroom, students typically sit among classmates, seeing mostly the back sides of those in front and nothing of those behind them. By contrast, in video conferencing, everyone looks directly at everyone else’s face, right in front of them. Thus, in some ways, learning online can be more “face-to-face” than learning in person.

Online learning remaps classroom interactions as well. On the negative side, it lacks the physical camaraderie and buzz of classroom life. Isaac Asimov foreshadowed this aspect of 2021 in 1951, with his prescient short story “The Fun They Had.” Asimov portrays a future world in which mechanical teachers are stationed in students’ homes, and classrooms with books are a thing of the distant past:

“The screen was lit up, and it said: ‘Today’s arithmetical lesson is on the addition of proper fractions. Please insert yesterday’s homework in the proper slot.’
Margie did so with a sigh. She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the school yard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.
And the teachers were people…
The mechanical teacher was flashing on the screen. ‘When we add the fractions ½ and ¼ …’
Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.”

On the screen-centered map, many classroom interactions are not possible. Students cannot share materials, lean over to fill each other in on that last idea, or pick up behavioral cues from each other to “get with the program.” And it is too easy for students to simply turn off their cameras and disappear. Thus, despite the many faces on the screen, many of the in-person face-to-face interactions that glue a learning community together in a physical classroom—and all around a school—fall through the cracks. This inhibits the development of interpersonal intelligence, social bonds, and a sense of belonging, which are among the most important types of learning. “One of the things I missed most over the last year is lunch at school,” said Mauricio, one of my graduating seniors. “That opportunity to sit down with my friends after three straight classes was great. And it provides a contrast to the classroom. I never really knew how much I cherished those moments until now.”

Among classroom interactions, one of the biggest casualties has been the ability of teachers to walk around to physically observe how students are working. This is when teachers can shift to a one-on-one consulting role—from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”—troubleshooting individual issues, challenging advanced students, and giving personalized guidance. This time is often when “differentiated instruction” happens, when teachers get to know the unique learning styles and abilities of their students and look for creative ways to address them. By contrast, in online classes, teachers typically can see very little, if anything, of what students are working on and how they are working on it. Even when a student holds up their work to the camera, it is often hard to read. Moreover, students are often allowed to work with their cameras off or asynchronously, eliminating any possibility for observations by the teacher. Online learning can make it more difficult for teachers to identify and help struggling students. Some have fallen so far behind that they have found it impossible to catch up, losing credit for an entire year of school. All students can lose out on teachers’ insights into their abilities, insights that later can help the students select suitable courses, college majors, and careers.

Instead of eliminating occasions for critical insights that can change lives, we should be charting a new map of the classroom that is centered on the students. One class at a time, over a year, a little in-person interaction between teachers and individual students goes a long way. But even in a physical classroom, students often do not get that kind of attention. Author and career-choice expert Anthony Spadafore of Pathfinders Career Design told me:

“The ‘guide on the side’ seems to be a rare factor in shaping students’ self-image or personal ‘story,’ based on what I’m seeing in my clients decades later, well after college. I’ve learned from my very unhappy, unfulfilled, highly educated 30- and 40-something ‘students,’ (professionals with graduate degrees who went to top high schools and universities), that they are not only unaware of their unique natural abilities and learning styles, they don’t even know that they have a personal uniqueness or ‘innateness.’ Generally, their career direction ‘bearing’ is the blank slate: ‘You can do anything, with hard work.’ Most of my clients are yearning for their Obi Wan or Yoda. They want a mentor who ‘sees’ their unique gifts and helps them to develop them. Although some get this, it is usually by chance. The vast majority have never had meaningful in-person interactions, where someone guided them to uncover their natural abilities and gifts.

And this is only a piece of the puzzle: Once a mentor helps a student narrow their focus on a well-suited range of career paths, students still need a good bit of hands-on experiential learning to test-drive their gifts to see what clicks—lots of short internships, jobs, and volunteer experiences. The vast majority of colleges do not make ‘experimenting’ a priority; in fact, the system is set up to penalize students who change majors. The ‘switching costs’ incurred to figure yourself out are very steep—so steep that it’s taking about half of college students six or more years to graduate. The long-term consequences that graduates are living with are going unnoticed. The majority are finding themselves stuck in a career that their teenage self pulled out of thin air decades earlier.”

In short, the screen-centered map can reduce the chances that a teacher can observe a student well enough to nudge them toward their unique natural strengths, a process which has the potential to avert decades spent pursuing unsuitable degrees and unfulfilling careers.

At the same time, the screen-centered map has also had positive effects on classroom interactions. In Zoom, students’ names appear below their faces and are listed on the sidebar, making them easier for teachers to remember and faster to mark down for attendance. No one has trouble seeing the board. Students can write private questions to the teacher in the chat, without stopping the class. Teachers can break students into discussion groups with a few clicks, without moving desks. Everyone can share documents and links quickly, without walking back and forth between the computer and the board or fumbling with a USB flash drive. Assuming students’ cameras are on, it can be easier for the teacher to see whether students are engaged, since all faces are conveniently shrunk onto a single small screen. And the fact that students’ microphones are muted most of the time, and can be muted by the teacher, means people don’t have to talk over side conversations. It becomes much harder to disrupt class, and a disruptive student can be removed with a click. Some schools with longstanding behavioral problems have vastly improved their learning environments by moving to online classes. For these reasons, many students and teachers have been just fine with online learning.

The strengths of both online and face-to-face learning can also be weaknesses. Either or both can increase or decrease distractions, depending on the student and the home and school environments. Online learning often allows more self-pacing, which some students thrive on, but this can turn a course into self-study. Online tests are quicker to grade—and eliminate the problem of bad handwriting—but they also make it infinitely easier for students to cheat. Reducing or cancelling extracurricular activities deprived students of experiences—including the kind where they can “test-drive their gifts to see what clicks”—but it also curbed the tendency for students to over-commit. Ultimately, whether online or in-person, what all successful classes have in common is a good teacher.

De-Zooming Toward a Better New Normal

In 2010, long before COVID-19 arrived, I attended a guest lecture by author and Emory literature professor Mark Bauerlein, held by the Tocqueville Forum at Georgetown University. In his popular books, articles, and podcasts, Bauerlein has lamented that college students today tend to avoid reading long works, cannot sustain attention, and cannot write a paper cohesively, in part due to growing up in a culture of immediate gratification, texts, tweets, and sound bites. During the question-and-answer time, a Georgetown professor in the audience observed that all around campus, including the picturesque paths crisscrossing Copley Lawn, people were passing each other with their faces buried in their phones. They did not see, much less acknowledge—much less strike up a conversation with—anyone around them. The professor opined that people seemed unaware that associational life involves not just what is directly in front of us, but “what happens on the sides,” waving his hands outward.

As a secondary teacher, one of the subtexts I have noticed has been that students who had developed good social skills before the pandemic seemed to be more successful in transitioning to online learning. Faced with the challenges of disconnection, they were more resilient and more proactive in asking for help and clarifications as well as setting up one-on-one meetings.

But Covid learning also highlighted the way in which modern society has intertwined two distinct functions: 1) academic education and 2) childhood and adolescent socialization. It became apparent that sometimes, and for some people, these work better when kept separate. Should students be able to choose publicly-funded online schools for all or part of their education, the same way many choose publicly-funded charter schools? And how much of the social interaction kids require needs to happen at school? Are we expecting too much of mass education—not just to educate kids but to be their primary locus of socialization as well? How much socialization can be really orchestrated by a single teacher when there are 25 kids in the classroom? While private schools like to show off their pools and labs in the pictures, many parents pay exorbitant tuition not for these bells and whistles—nor even for better teachers, often—but for a more humane environment for socialization, including far smaller class sizes and the personal attention that is sorely lacking in the age of mass education.

King Philip II received lots of personal attention growing up. According to William H. Prescott’s History of the Reign of Philip II and Spain’s Royal Academy of History, the king was tutored in politics by his father, Charles V; in chivalry and warfare by Castilian nobleman Juan de Zúñiga; in grammar, math, Latin, and French by University of Salamanca professor Juan Martínez Silíceo; and in philosophy by humanist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. Education at the earliest medieval universities was also essentially tutoring. A few young men who could afford it would pay a fee to a scholar knowledgeable in the topic they were interested in, and they sat down together with a book and learned. Many of America’s Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson, John Marshall, and George Washington, did not attend formal schools in their early years, but instead learned from tutors. Others, like John Adams, took classes with a handful of other students in home schools. Ben Franklin had a total of two years of schooling in his entire life, both before the age of ten. None of this seems to have hindered these great minds’ ability to write, think, or work well with others. By contrast, today many students graduate from college without having read or discussed great works and unable to write a clear cohesive paragraph. Less can be more. As we de-Zoom, will the successes of online learning wake us up to how much of “education” is not education?

The latter years of Philip II’s reign signaled the coming decline of the Spanish Empire. One cause was the overstretch of the royal bureaucracy he had developed. It became slow and wasteful. The king took on an enormous workload, but he could not keep up. Two inches of paper would no longer be enough.

Our digital two inches of paper will not be enough either. It saved us from losing a year of school. It made some aspects of education better. We over-relied on it because we had to. Now that we don’t, we must find creative ways to remap the educational landscape again–not back to the way it was, but prioritizing meaningful in-person interactions and experiential learning, while harnessing the best aspects of online learning, so that after the pandemic, students and teachers are more truly connected than before.

Robert C. Thornett teaches in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Program at the International School of Panama.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College