Review Essay: Online Learning, with a Cultural Literacy Worksheet and Some Questions on the Last Mile

Online learning was touted as the next big thing in education when I became a teacher in 2003. As it happened, I entered the profession, after abandoning a doctoral candidacy at the University of Wisconsin, via the New York City Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification route contrived to bring new teachers into New York, which is chronically short of teachers.

Fellows in the Program were required to complete a Master’s Degree at an institution to which the Program assigned them. I ended up in what I basically regard as a diploma mill; part of my experience as a graduate student in this institution involved classes conducted partially online. Having spent, by that time, a great deal of time in graduate seminars, I saw the online component as a poor substitute for an actual face-to-face seminar, where one is required to think and communicate extemporaneously–a hallmark of an educated person by any standard I’m prepared to recognize.

So, thinking that online learning was at best laughable, I waited for it to die its richly deserved natural death. It turns out I underestimated the power of commerce over art, of marketing over facts, and of credulity over careful analytical thought. 

Online learning did indeed take off, and brought us, among other things, as one careful blogger has observed, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow Scandal (and if you need more documentation of this large-scale ripoff, you can find it here). One of the reasons I was compelled to leave my teaching job in New York City was this post on the “flipped classroom” I wrote and sent to an assistant principal and his coterie of friends pushing this bad idea at our school; I wrote it at the end of the 2017-2018 school year, and when I returned the following year to a campaign of harassment, I just walked away. I was, I am pleased to say, later vindicated in my assessment of the “flipped classroom.”

The coronavirus pandemic brought online learning back, and I’m sure I don’t need to belabor the fact–to parents or students–that little has improved (if there was indeed anything to improve) in this method of delivering instruction. In fact, I think few people remain who need to be convinced that online learning has been, is, and will remain, a disaster. The news reporting on this fact has been nothing short of a deluge: an Internet search using a phrase like “problems with online learning” will return pretty much all the information you’ll need about the failure of online learning.

Which brings me to this Cultural Literacy worksheet on the Last Mile. This is a fairly broadly used term now, but for the purposes of this worksheet, and the thrust of this essay, it refers to the last mile of wire required to bring information at high speeds to households, particularly those in rural areas. The last mile is the most expensive distance to cover where the economics of telecommunications technology and labor is concerned. Because of resistance in wires that carry electrical signals, it is also the hardest to deliver because the signal slows and weakens as it travels along the length–resistance increases along that distance–of the wire conducting it.

So, there are two areas of critical inquiry related to the Last Mile problem. I haven’t written them into the questions on the worksheet above, but since this is a Microsoft Word document, you can alter it as you wish. The first critical issue is the economics and politics of the Internet. As the world becomes more dependent on the Internet, the question arises about its ownership: should the Internet be a public utility, or a public good? Much has been written about data as the new oil–but should it be? This question is urgent as the coronavirus pandemic continues and online learning becomes de rigueur in many places around the world. The Latinism cui bono? (“to whom is it a benefit?”) applies here. Who benefits from the Internet, and who should? I know that my own monthly charge for high-speed internet just went up twenty bucks a month, so I have some sense of who benefits: Comcast. As companies and government agencies transfer their customer service functions to the Internet–and therefore to their customers–and public education moves increasingly online, this question takes on new urgency.

The second critical issue is a science-related question. If you follow science news, you probably know that superconductivity is a perennial area of research and discovery in physics. The question for a student interested in this is simple: what materials will increase conductivity across the Last Mile and make delivery of high speed Internet possible to the most remote locations? Can this be done through the air, as in a 5G cellular data connection, or is wire necessary? The student might also ask, or be asked: What is resistance? What is conductivity? How does one reduce resistance and increase conductivity? Even more: What is an electrical circuit? How does electricity “travel”?

Internet access has been a big problem for some families here in rural Vermont. There is very little competition (if any in some markets) among internet service providers, so in general there is very little motivation to make high speed internet access available in remote locations. This has, of course, impeded students’ educational progress. So the big question here, to my mind, is this: How far do we let corporations control something like the Internet that has become an essential part–especially during this pandemic–of our lives?

Enough said. I’m not sure how this simple blog post turned into this prolix slog. 

If you find typos in this document, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.

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