Essay Larry Bensky

Plague Journal #11: A Different Kind of Education Experience

Online learning is no panacea for what ails education, now or ever.

Larry Bensky, a long-time radio and print journalist. has been writing his “Journal of the Plague Year” since mid-March for the legendary Anderson Valley Advertiser. He welcomes your comments and suggestions:

By Larry Bensky

Berkeley, June 1 – Coast to coast, they’re drifting back to campuses, starting this week. From modest institutions like the San Mateo Union School District to medium-size campuses like Fresno State to megabucks domains like USC, unused buildings and open spaces will start to look inhabited again.

Inhabited not by students and faculty, but by athletes and coaches. Even as decisions have yet to be made about academia in Fall 2020 while the coronavirus situation continues to evolve – how many classes may be live, how many may be part live, how many will be cancelled – the lines of  online chatter are bursting. Being discussed are such grave matters as the seating capacity of stadiums at Florida State and the University of Washington, household preferences for times to watch sports events, and slogans to put on newly minted T-shirts (“We Won! Now Let’s Play!”).

Football would seem to be the worst possible candidate for re-opening in a pandemic. It’s a contact sport. Filled with fast action and movement. A pile of big, entangled, awkward bodies frequently characterizes the end of every play. Spectator stands are often jammed shoulder to shoulder with people jumping up and down, screaming as loudly as they can. Post-game, stadiums are garbage dumps, with partly eaten food lying around. (Ask the San Francisco Bay’s flocks of fat seagulls about this; they’ve had decades to fatten – and get diseased from discards at Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers games.)

Each college football team has about 150 people on its travelling roster, including players, coaches, trainers, and staff to coordinate food needs, ground transportation, and accomodations. Even if wasteful and unnecessary flights like Stanford and Notre Dame’s annual excursions were eliminated in favor of scheduling more local teams, how much appeal would those have to a TV audience accustomed to “name brand” spectacles? More important: What about those 150 people who make up the jock pod? Have they all been quarantined for two weeks or more? Have they been tested regularly for the virus? How frequently have their locker rooms been sanitized? And what about the media hordes accompanying them – reporters, broadcasters, technicians. And those who feed them? Will they be on limited contact regimes? Who will test them? 

What happens, say, if a few Fresno State players show symptoms of COVID-19 after a game in Utah to which they’ve travelled in a fleet of buses? Do teams cancel upcoming games because of the few infected? What do such cancellations mean for league standings, and especially for job prospects for what are sometimes laughably called “student athletes?” 

Want to know why our civic life and political attitudes are so characterized by ignorance and non-participation? Check out the classes that these “student athletes” have taken in history, government, geography, earth science, and public health. One particularly egregious example occurred at the University of North Carolina where over 200 fraudulent classes were found to have been offered, and taken by “student athletes,” earlier this century. The governing board of the National Collegiate Athletic Association refused to take action, finding “no violations of its rules, largely due to the fact that the NCAA does not have oversight authority for university academic programs.” 

Nobody else has such oversight authority either, it appears, as a few wrist slaps and generalized warnings were issued. And huge amounts of money continue to be used as bait in the megabucks recruiting process. Whose truncation, but certainly not extinction, will be a subject of sports history for decades to come.

More locally (much more locally!) the entrance to my neighborhood public elementary school sprouted a tent with long tables this week. There were lots of cartons on top. A steady stream of scheduled parents pulled up, went to tables labeled with their children’s teacher’s names, staffed by high school volunteers. In the cartons were the possessions of the 264 K-5 boys and girls that had been left when the school was abruptly locked down in late March.

These included random clothing items, a few toys, books, and a few “work products.” Writing exercises on lined paper. Pebble-covered classic notebooks. And, mostly, art!

There’s nothing as touching, and filled with evocative associations, as kids’ art. It reveals, or seems to, so much. Sometimes there’s a remarkable talent for form, color, organization. Sometimes there are glimpses of unsuspected insight (“does my kid really think I look like that? That my hair is a mess? That I never smile/never stop smiling?”) Those of us who have stable living situations tend to keep more of these drawings, watercolors, collages than we can justify. Only if we move, or when our kids move out, does it become a question of what to preserve further, and why.

A few of the cartons down the street are unclaimed, but nothing is thrown away. Families can come to the school when it opens (not for classes, but for visitation) and claim them. There will be, as there is with so much else in this frightening and frightened time, a sense of loss. Not just of the weeks of school missed, which have been somewhat covered by distance learning. Not just of the strong possibility that nothing of the sort will be produced this year – art classes, as well as things like music, gardening, and field trips are likely to disappear for “budget” reasons. The budget, as always, will be balanced on the backs of those who can least afford it – in this case, public school students. But also because we’re likely to miss our children’s responses to prompts. 

“Draw a picture of someone who’s helping sick people.” 

“Did you spend a lot more time with your dog or cat when school was closed?” 

“Do you think the dog or cat liked seeing you more after spending more time with you?”

Behind every seeming social consensus in this country lies an inevitable quantity of division and dissension. Nowhere is this more obvious than in education. “Everyone” seems to agree that it’s necessary and desirable. Few people seem to have agreed on what it is, who should be involved in it, and what its outcomes should be. Yes, we “all” want what’s best. What will most contribute to our kids’ futures? But we “all” are often ragged and jagged about it all.

So it isn’t surprising, though it is depressing, to follow what “re-opening” might mean, not just on college campuses, but way down to preschool. There are six million school-age children in California. They reside in about one thousand school districts and attend 10,500 public schools. There are about a thousand additional charter and religious schools. 

The immediate issue is how to continue some form of viable education for as many children as possible at a time when it’s inadvisable, even dangerous, to have them in physical proximity. As always, a panacea has emerged. And towards it are swarming educators, parents, commercial interests and politicians. It’s called “ online” or “distance” learning.

I first started teaching “distance learning” classes as a part-time lecturer at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay) in the mid 1990s. A new “satellite” campus was built on what had been a large cattle ranch on the lower slopes of Mt. Diablo. It was part of a statewide land rush meant to serve what seemed to be California’s endless population growth. An architecturally integrated series of classroom and office buildings appeared. A small library, a bookstore, and a food service area were included. There were no athletic facilities or large meeting halls. 

What did not appear were students.

Somehow those who theoretically work on such matters had neglected to ascertain, as they so often do, whether another campus was needed where it was built. Or wanted. Or would attract anything like the number of students and faculty that would justify its expense. And there were other quirks, like transportation. Only one bus line went there, and its infrequent passengers had to devote half an hour to 45 minutes each way to voyage from the Walnut Creek BART station. Parking was plentiful, so most people drove. This would have increased already teeming suburban traffic had the projected total of 5,000 students been reached. But the campus, in twenty years, has never had more than 1,000 enrolled, and a good percentage of those don’t complete the courses they’ve signed up for.

So what if you could “go to school” and not be in school? What if you could “take a class” at the much larger (around 13,000 students) main campus in Hayward and be in a room in Concord? Or in your own room wherever you live?

And so “distance learning” was born. Massive technical glitches characterized its early years. The cameras that were supposed to transmit images, and the accompanying sound systems, hadn’t been sufficiently tested. Everyone in one place (Hayward) was supposed to be able to see, hear, and interact with people in the other (Concord) and vice versa. This worked only if a skilled technician was present in both places. But there was little or no budget for such people. And we teachers usually had limited skills in such areas. And so teaching became tweaking. You always had to prepare things to talk about and show to replace what you’d already spent hours getting ready to talk about and show. Encouraging participation by those in attendance became a challenge, as awkward cameras would focus on feet or windows, rather than hands waving to be called on, or lips already (silently) moving.

Now, as we get headline teasers like, “Minus the Distractions At School, Some Find Online Learning a Plus,” and even “The Future of College is Online,” I can tell you it’s largely nonsense. As my now “university,” where I’ve taught since 1992, has evolved from “distance learning’ to “ online” classes, gone is even the pretense of significantly incorporating human interactions. And part of the reason is that Zoom has become the industry standard, meaning that standard has been established very low. Try watching MSNBC or CNN for examples of talking heads with no sound, good quality pictures alternating with what look like the products of 1950s-era photo booths. Long known but still unfixed delays between questions and answers destroy any effort to establish dialogue.

Such technical issues are not irrelevant. Billions and billions have been spent for decades in this country on the digital Disneyfication of consciousness. It starts with a toddler’s handheld device and moves up through whatever the latest tech craze puts out there. Kids, then adolescents, then adults expect excellence in presentation, although not necessarily in content. 

Students will do what they always do, depending on their circumstances. They will consider the economic benefit (“By choosing not to go to college, you are essentially forfeiting $17,500 per year and $1 million over your lifetime,” says Peter Osborn, Cornerstone University) with the actual costs. Not just what schools charge (around $6,000 a year at my state school to around $70,000 a year at Stanford) but the socio-economic costs, like continuing to live with parents four (or more!) years when you desperately wanted to live where you could come home at any hour you damn please and do your laundry whenever.

And then there’s school. Your online classes don’t boot up with flashing screens, or a show biz icon saying or singing a jingle. They’re just another element on your laptop, along with games, demographically targeted sales pitches, porn, and cameras transmitting 14/7 pictures of nesting birds or suckling pigs. Having now had several hundred students exposed to all this mental mosh pit, my conclusion is simple. The more the distance, the less the learning.

The online panacea pushing extends well into the absurd, like a course in biology at M.I.T. which has 134,000 enrolled. Students may not be daunted by such numbers, says a laconic NY Times report, because less time spent in doing schoolwork “would, after all, open up professor capacity for a larger number of live interactions.” (Just exactly how much time would a professor be available for “live interactions” with 134,00 students, one wonders, and how would he or she decide who to talk to and for how long?)

As with dozens of other utterances and mutterances on dozens of other issues, the Trump administration is scurrying back from what seemed to be a definitive stand. An April statement by vice-president Mike Pence, “if students were not allowed in classrooms they would not be on the football field either” has now become “elastic.” as the New York Times puts it

Pulling down one side of the “elastic” are megabucks. College football brings in close to a billion dollars as year, about 70 percent of it from the sale of broadcast rights. The Friendly Fascists at Fox News, with their bigotry, lies and distortions, bring in about $5 billion a year. The Fox Sports haul is about $2 billion, while ESPN (owned by Disney) is paid about $11.5 billion. 

When all sports shuttered in April, so did their media money spigot. Campuses and their athletes aren’t sufficiently indicative of what’s financially at stake, since professional basketball, football, and baseball are where the real moneyball is played. And in the kind of conjuncture that only life can provide and nobody can plan for, it is not even the deadly pandemic, or the sports division of the National Entertainment State, that now winds up distracting us from fundamental issues like education.

It’s another virus, sometimes seemingly under control, sometimes bursting out to demonstrate its pervasive power, that now has re-erupted. The senseless, cruel, victimization of George Floyd is reminding us of – or, in the case of young people hitherto unexposed to it, showing for the first time – a fundamental, ugly element in our nation’s DNA. The COVID-19 driven effort to push for equal access online is now having the unintended online side of effect of allowing millions of children newly provided with computers and internet access to experience those awful minutes of George Floyd’s death. And the spirit and energy of widespread outrage that this kind of nightmare still occurs.

[To read previous entry of the “Journal of the Plague Year” click here]

Larry Bensky
Larry Bensky

Larry Bensky is a literary and political journalist with experience in both print and broadcast media, as well as a teacher and political activist. He is known for his work with Pacifica Radio station KPFA-FM in Berkeley, California, and for the nationally-broadcast hearings he anchored for the Pacifica network