The Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner once built what he referred to as a “teaching machine.” Based around the principle that positive reinforcement was crucial to teaching, Skinner’s machine allowed students to pull different levers in order to indicate their answers to questions. When the correct lever was pulled, a light switched on to show that the right answer had been given. In some versions, Skinnerian teaching machines dispensed pieces of candy when a sufficient number of right answers had been provided.
Skinner was right about the positive reinforcement aspect of teaching. Think back to your favorite teachers at school and, chances are, they motivated you and your classmates by giving you positive feedback and encouragement. Heck, maybe they even handed out candy on occasion after a particularly well-done test. Today, there are no shortage of great learning apps that apply some of the Skinnerian principles to learning. But, while edu-tech is booming, so too is the importance of real, live teachers.
In a year in which education has been disrupted for millions of learners around the world, with schools and higher-educational establishments shuttered due to the pandemic, teachers have pivoted to embracing tools like Zoom — thereby combining the remote access and scalability of digital tools with the good old-fashioned, human-led teaching of, well, teachers. Could there be a better blend of humans and machines?
“Zoom has been a revelation really. It has been amazing, and has got us as close as possible to replicating a classroom environment.”
“I was thrown in at the deep end right at the start, a week before lockdown, because my daughter is at the same school as me and coughed, so we were sent home [as a precautionary measure,]” Sarah Crowther, a high school art teacher, told Digital Trends. “So I was at home teaching my classes for that first week, while all the students were still in school. There was a teacher in the room to keep an eye on them, but I was Zooming in from home to give instructions and to keep them going on projects they had already undertaken. Then when we went into lockdown, that just continued.”
Crowther said she was skeptical initially about teaching via Zoom. Working in a practical discipline that’s all about putting physical marks down on a canvas, she feared the worst. But she found Zoom easy to use and accessible. She has been using it in conjunction with Showbie, an app makes it easy for teachers to hand out digital assignments to students.
While Crowther said that she would still much rather be teaching in a physical classroom, she is now confident enough about the “new normal” way of teaching that she’s set up a webpage on her site, The Arty Teacher, to help other teachers upskill on teaching via Zoom. It includes pointers on everything from the best ways to use breakout rooms to chasing missing work (“sorry, miss, the dog deleted it.”)
Not everyone making the Zoomification of education possible is a trained teacher, however. Elyssa Katz, a Santa Monica, California-based mother of three, found herself hurled into the same situation as many parents around the world when coronavirus broke out. “I was having anxiety about the year coming up for my own kids,” Katz told Digital Trends. “I just decided that I was going to move into this educational space. For some reason, the idea of Zoom and tutors were at the top of my mind. I thought, I don’t need a tutor. I’m gonna call it a ‘Zutor.’”
Her business is based on the Zutor, as perfectly 2020 a neologism as one could hope for, a tutor who can carry out some combination of teaching and nannying via Zoom — or, where allowed, support e-learning in person. “I didn’t [have to adapt my business to this]; I didn’t have a company prior to this,” Katz said. “Everything I’ve done has been as a result of what’s going on with the pandemic and what parents need to get through this.”
With a background in marketing (hey, terms like Zutor don’t just fall out of the sky) and public relations, Katz said she has always been good at matchmaking. Her idea for a company was to seek out people with the right skill set and then connect them virtually with families in need. This started in Los Angeles, but she’s now branched out to cover New York, Michigan, Maryland, Florida, and anywhere else her services are required.
“We all need the same thing in a sense, in that we need support. But every family needs a different type of support,” she said.
Katz claims a matchmaking fee for finding the right Zutors, which involves interviewing them, carrying out background checks, and more. One of the first tests? “If a candidate can’t get on Zoom to interview with me, then they can’t be a Zutor,” she said.
Online tutors can make anywhere from $20 to $65 an hour. “Everyone who I work with has to have a Bachelor’s [degree] and has to have worked with kids in a classroom or a tutoring environment,” she said. “They have to understand the curriculum.”
In many cases, Zutors are local to the people they are teaching, which opens up the possibility of in-person tutoring where possible. But this is not necessary in the age of Zoom learning. In fact, it may not even be desirable.
Joel Ashton is the director of Language Tree Truro, a language school in Cornwall in the U.K. He set the school up several years ago hoping that the beautiful natural surroundings — Cornwall is the setting of the popular BBC show Poldark — would be a good hook for reeling in prospective learners. “It’s this special part of the U.K.,” Ashton told Digital Trends. “It’s beautiful. It’s all about the beach, and the outdoor culture. There’s lots of interesting history.”
People turning up to the language school in person found their experience split between organized classes and organized sightseeing. Then coronavirus happened. Ashton pivoted and began offering classes online.
“Zoom has been a revelation really,” he said. “It has been amazing, and has got us as close as possible to replicating a classroom environment. It’s so simple for everyone to get on board, whether they are tech-savvy or not. So I couldn’t really praise them highly enough.”
What really surprised Ashton, however, was the interest he began receiving from people further afield than he might ordinarily attract. To try and stand out, he worked to incorporate as much local flavor into his offerings, leaning into the aspects that make the Language Tree Truro unique.
“Even though [our participants] can’t come to Cornwall or to the U.K. right now, they can hopefully feel from their bedroom in Japan that they are somehow part of this. They are traveling digitally.”
This is one of the most exciting aspects of the new Zoom learning approach. Classrooms are currently out of action, so why not truly embrace the new geographical possibilities? Gone are the days when your best bet for learning Spanish is exclusively from the local teacher who hasn’t visited a Spanish-speaking country in 15 years. Why not, instead, go right to the source? Want to learn French? Find a tutor in France. Want to learn Chinese? Dial in to someone in Beijing. While there may be time zones to contend with, many teachers will be willing to work early mornings or late evenings for students across the world.
This is one of the most impressive aspects of education via Zoom and other remote-learning tools. At a time when people are more locked down than they have been in years, many are discovering a world of new educational possibilities. Whether it’s learning a musical instrument or getting some extra science or math tutoring, some bespoke coding lessons, or, heck, even some high-end miniature-painting tutorials, there’s probably a human-led online learning solution for you.
No, there’s no substitute for a classroom. But there are plenty of lessons that can be taken from this pandemic and applied to the future of learning.
“The main benefits of Zoom calls for online video tuition is that you can ask whatever questions you have,” said James Otero, managing director of Siege Studios, one of the world’s leading premium miniature-painting companies. “The beauty of it is that all the teachers who work for the business are either competition winners [or have some other high level of painting expertise]. We’ve got a very, very proficient and senior team here that you get access to.”
There’s no doubt that education of every stripe is changing rapidly in the age of coronavirus. But tools like Zoom, and the accompanying technologies and materials, have helped it transform in a way that’s extremely exciting. No, there’s no substitute for a classroom. But there are plenty of lessons that can be taken from this pandemic and applied to the future of learning.
Forget George Bernard Shaw’s insulting “those who can’t do, teach” line. The replacement should be “those who can’t teach in person, pivot.” Regardless of if it’s learning to pass exams or learning for, well, the joy of learning, we’ll all be better off as a result.