Is the Virtual Classroom Cheating Our Kids?

If you believe that the main reason for educating our children is to make them cogs in a spinning wheel, then virtual education is all you need. However, if you think that education means more than achieving literacy and numeracy if you think it includes the following:

  • learning about literature and culture,
  • how to socialize with other people,
  • forging bonds with peers that will last a lifetime,
  • challenging preconceived notions about the world,

then virtual education falls short of a real education.

Virtual education is great for acquiring skills quickly, training to do a specific job, or learning a specific skill. Real education has a human side to it that we ignore at our peril.

Students who have graduated from high school may well be able to adapt to a fully integrated online study program because they may already have the maturity and social constructs in place. This is not true of children and young adults in the K-12 classroom who are building the scaffolding of relationships, emotional stability, and cognitive development.

They need people: teachers, peers, and adults who can serve as role models and caring guides as well as disseminators of information and academics. When I think back to my calculus class in high school, I remember little of the material because I pursued a career in English literature and languages and have had little occasion to worry about velocity or statistical formulas.

However, I distinctly remember my teacher, who taught us how to logically move from one part of the equation to another. I watched him tackle each problem with the patience of a Buddha and the tenacity of a master. I struggled mightily in that course, but earning a solid “B” by the end was one of the proudest moments of my high school years. Kids need to see their teachers in action.

No, virtual learning is not the same as classroom learning. Watching someone through a screen inserts a level of verisimilitude that masks the verbal, physical, and psychological cues that an astute classroom teacher would cue in on to adjust and re-direct instruction.

Yes, an algorithm can do this, and do it better, but so what? It’s still an algorithm culling information and data, not a real human watching your child and figuring out what your child needs to do differently to improve.

The algorithm won’t know that a child’s feelings were hurt. It won’t know how to inject a little humor into a grueling lesson. The algorithm won’t recognize the humanity of a shared chuckle or a nuanced response. Instead of introducing more screens, maybe we need more good teachers with fewer students on their rosters and fewer administrative burdens so that they can focus on kids.

Virtual learning is better than nothing, but it is far inferior to a classroom experience with a good teacher and a roomful of peers who are engaged in the learning process as a group.

While virtual learning may replace many college classes, it is not nearly as effective in educating students in grades K-12. In a recent opinion article by Susan Loeb, “How Effective is Online Learning? What the Research Does and Doesn’t Tell Us,” the flaws in online learning are explained: kids who struggle in class will have an even tougher time online. Students rated online classes as more difficult than in-person classes, and online classes were not as effective, as fewer students finished the course.

The conclusion: “In comparisons of online and in-person classes, however, online classes aren’t as effective as in-person classes for most students.”

I arrived at the same conclusions after moving from an in-person class to Blackboard last spring. I was teaching an ESL course at a community college when we moved to an online format. For the first time in the four years, I had been teaching at the college, many students either failed the class because of problems accessing the internet or not being able to complete the online assignments.

After following up with students who had stopped working, I got the same answer: I’ll re-take the class when it’s given in-person. For these students, the human interaction: the ability to ask impromptu questions, to engage with their peers, to learn in a supportive environment was way more important than learning how to write grammatically correct sentences.

No doubt, students who would have had no access to courses would benefit from at least having an on-line course. Also, students who are trying to practice a particular skill or review for exams would definitely benefit from the narrow scope of a virtual course.

However, students in K-12 education need more. They need social interaction, bonding, friendships, and role models. Even the pressure to get good grades is mostly beneficial in motivating kids to achieve a goal.

In fact, in my own life, it was one of the first times where I worked hard and was rewarded for my efforts. Kids need the challenge of earning good grades, tracking their own improvement over time, and trusting themselves enough to know that they can meet the challenges of the future. They also need to know that they are not alone. They are part of a cohort, a community, a class of kids struggling and succeeding in tandem.

Real education happens in real-time, in real classrooms, with human teachers. Anything else is just training.

Originally published at on October 7, 2020.

English teacher, bilingual ESL adjunct, author, reader, writer, reviewer of books, trends, and everyday life.

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