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The first thing to remember about distance learning via online classes is a practical matter: The tool with which students study, read, write, watch educational films, communicate with teachers, take tests, and submit school work is the same tool with which students play video games, share photos, watch shows, check Instagram, send text messages, order food, get directions, and tweet.

The print textbook has only one use, an academic one. A student sitting in class while a teacher presents a unit on the Roman Empire or the structure of DNA can't do anything but listen and take notes (as long as the teacher is vigilant). A student attending the same presentations on Rome and DNA through Zoom can't be so controlled. The teacher is too far away. He knows that the device that carries him to the student's home has oh-so-many other purposes. Ten minutes earlier, one of those students was deep into a game with three other buddies, tense and excited. Now, he is supposed to shift the same screen to a whole other activity—in his eyes, of course, a boring and disappointing one relative to the prior fun.

The game he was playing was created with his impulses in mind. People in Silicon Valley designed games and social media apps according to the causes of addictive behavior. Hundreds of brilliant engineers and developers used their talents to create a very “sticky” screen activity. The teacher has nothing like that to back him up. The facts and stories of ancient Rome get no advantage in a screen environment, at least not until they have been made into a game, a program, a video.

This is one major problem with the decision of many schools and universities to continue offering online-only instruction in the next academic year. Academic content is now implicated in a technology that youths have been primed to use, interpret, and value for different purposes. It's not that the screen is inherently contrary to academic learning (though I doubt the physics of the screen are as generative of advanced literacy as are the physics of the printed page). Rather, it's that years of a certain behavioral conditioning at the screen make it difficult for students to treat the screen primarily as an instrument of learning, not an instrument of diversion, and teachers don't have the time or the power or the knowledge to recondition them.  

Even the space the kids inhabit when learning at home hinders the shift: American teens have converted the bedroom into a social space, not a private space. When kids go to their rooms and shut the doors, they’re not secluding themselves. They're opening up to the world (and shutting out the parents down the hall). Now, this game room/chat room/screen room is supposed to be a classroom, too.

Next year, even if standardized testing gets back to normal, test scores won't. We may be sure that SAT, ACT, NAEP, GRE, LSAT, GMAT, and MCAT scores will fall. These many months of online instruction will show up as lower reading and math skills, but nobody in the system will be able to do anything about it.

The only ones who can counteract the damage will be those ousted parents in the other room. This is what those parents should do:

  • When your kids have to complete a writing assignment, have them do the first draft by hand with pencil and paper, a print dictionary and thesaurus beside them.
  • Do not let them read assigned books online—print copies only.
  • When they watch instructional videos, have them take notes by hand in a spiral notebook dedicated to the subject (research on the advantages of note-taking over any screen method is solid).
  • Finally, keep the leisure screen shenanigans completely out of the homeschooling hours—no breaks for video, no browsing until class is over, no social contact while the teacher is talking. 
  • Collaboration over homework is fine, and texting and phone calls after “school” ends are, too. But the school day must be kept intact and uninterrupted.

Parents who follow these steps will see a payoff when grades and scores come in. Parents who leave kids to control their own learning in the online-only moment will not. In other words, the pre-existing advantage that kids with involved parents have over kids with uninvolved parents will be expanded. The benefits of a two-parent household, too, will be amplified. The old digital divide of the 1990s and 2000s so loudly lamented back then, whereby kids without Internet access were thought to be fatally handicapped, will be reversed. It will be the kids who are online too much who will fall behind.  

As many have noted, the titans of Silicon Valley keep their kids away from screens as much as they can. Those in low-income households and single-parent households should be able to do the same—but the stay-at-home schooling policies in place for this fall will make that impossible. It is hard enough for a single mother with two kids to keep them focused on schoolwork and not on YouTube. What can she do when she must work at home all morning while the kids are in their rooms promising to pay attention to their teachers, but are instead drifting and multitasking and horsing around? She doesn't have the time or energy to monitor them closely, nor does she have the money to hire tutors or take the kids to Mathnasium. The coming months will be an academic nightmare for her, and her kids won't realize the damage until they proceed to the next level and discover that they didn't learn what they were supposed to learn the year before.

Mark Bauerlein is contributing editor of First Things.

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