Opinion Oct 9, 2020 5:00 PM EST

Kids in remote learning are mute witnesses to their education and not active participants

Remote learning is not learning, it's just remote. When teachers don't like what's going on in the chat, or feel that kids are acting up, they can just mute them with the click of a button.

Kids in remote learning are mute witnesses to their education and not active participants
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY
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Remote learning is not learning, it's just remote. When teachers don't like what's going on in the chat, or feel that kids are acting up, they can just mute them with the click of a button, leaving kids staring at their screens with no way to participate. They are literally mute observers to their education.

In March, after Google Meets became one of the go-to virtual classroom apps, Google made some changes to the platform specifically for educators. The changes meant that only creators and calendar owners could remove or mute people in a meeting, and that those in the meeting would not be able to come back into the session once the last person left.

The reasoning was that this way, "a teacher, as a meeting creator or Calendar event owner, can't be removed or muted by students participating in the event." Good news for teachers, for sure, but in the virtual setting teachers have even more control over a classroom than they did previously. This is great in some ways, and I'm sure makes teaching virtually easier than it would be if everyone was talking at once, but it also can turn the classroom into a mute, non-participatory audience.

In August, the updates from Google included not allowing meetings to start without a teacher present, which while great in theory, means that all student interactions are facilitated by an adult and there is no peer to peer contact. Teachers were given the "ability to mute all, disable chat, lock the presentation screen, block anonymous knocks and end the meeting for all users."

Remote learning is more like watching live TV than actual learning. In an in-person classroom, when a teacher stands before the class, she can see all the kids, can tell who is paying attention, and can discipline those who aren't. When kids are talking out of turn, she can tell them to stop. When a kid raises his or her hand, she can acknowledge it.

None of this is true in a remote classroom. There's a text chat function, but kids are told by the teacher not to use it, and definitely not to use it to talk to each other. The teacher who runs the chat is able to mute all the kids' mics, and only unmutes at her discretion. This leaves kids feeling like no one even knows they're there, and the kids who often get in trouble for talking just sit there, mute, unable to talk to their friends or their teacher.

It's a truly virtual lesson, because nothing is real, not the learning, not the interaction. Teachers can deliver themselves of the entire lesson without any input from students, and don't even have to acknowledge them at all. To the extent that they ask for class participation, they don't have to engage with the difficult kids or the ones who speak out of turn.

"During social studies today," my son told me the other day, "a kid asked 'how long is this period,' and the teacher muted chat until the end of social studies."

Once chat is muted, you can still use text chat, he told me, but kids don't get to unmute themselves. For my son's class, it was the kids who weren't typing in chat that got to be unmuted and participate in the class. Which, from a teacher's perspective, makes perfect sense: they have a lesson to get through, and they have to get that done. But is that more important than making sure the lesson is being learned?

In a virtual learning environment, there's no class clowns, there's no chatterbox, there's no kid who is so confused that he or she has to stop and ask a million questions, there's no kids that are so bored that a teacher can see them zoning out. Teachers can't get to know their students at all. This is not a classroom built for kids, it's one built for corporate training, and it's useless.

Kids across the country have been back in school for a few weeks, and in many of the big metropolitan areas, this education is being conducted via screen. While problems persist in just what exactly is being taught, and parents have expressed concerns about education looking more like indoctrination than actual information, another big problem is what remote learning actually is.

A recent story out of Washington State showed that a teacher muted an entire chat when he didn't like one student's expression of admiration for the current American president. Muting is not just to keep order, but can keep kids, and opinions that teachers don't want to hear, out of the classroom.

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