Should online Schooling as the ‘new normal’ leave older teachers behind?

The concepts of ‘e-learning’ and ‘online schooling’ are filled with a near magical aura of curiosity and novelty. When I hear these terms, I tend to think of words and phrases such as modernity, technologically advanced and futuristic. The truth is, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to teach online. I never ever thought, being a Primary School teacher, that I’d have an opportunity to do so. Enter COVID-19.

As educators begin the controversial migration back to our ‘natural habitat’, AKA the physical classroom, I am finally offered a moment to breathe, take stock and evaluate how the past seven weeks have gone. Since the initial announcement by Minister Motshekga that all schools were to be closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of wealthier and well-resourced schools began offering various forms of online schooling to its learners. My own experience of these past few weeks was filled with a sense of excitement and fascination in the beginning but was quickly turned to a sense of worry at the number of challenges that educators across the country began to face as a result of these sudden changes.

Laying all the emotions aside, I think it wise to stop and recognize the past few weeks, and this current moment in history, for what it is. A sombre, life-altering moment that has the potential to change every aspect of how we look at education and our educators – for the better or for worse.

What do I mean exactly? Well, in common law legal systems, a term that is widely used is ‘setting precedent’ (Lamond, 2016). This roughly means that a certain case or situation in the legal courts establishes a principal or rule that must be adhered to by lower courts. Stare decisis is the Latin term and offers a slight nuance to the above attempted definition. Stare decisis invokes the idea that decisions are made based on previous decisions (Timothy, 2017). There is no room for deviance if one invokes Stare decisis. Now, I do realise that I cannot equate the legal system to the education system as they are two distinct structures, but the danger I see today is that by making use of technology and online schooling in such a rapid and sweeping manner (due to COVID-19) draws the danger of setting precedent (Stare decisis) across the country’s unequal and imbalanced education sector. The sad truth is that in our current neoliberal world, it is often the neoliberal elite (and all of us stuck in their world) that tend to invoke Stare decisis upon others, without ever even realising it (Harvey, 2005).

If those in the wealthier parts of society rush towards this new precedent, without realising what it does to the poorer inhabitants of our country, we risk furthering the already disastrous inequalities in South Africa. A quick cursory look at inequality in schools and we will see that some schools barely have a functional roof to provide shelter (Servaas, 2007). How on earth are they going to ‘follow precedent’ by conducting e-lessons? Can our society still claim to be in search for quality equal education with such neoliberal agendas at play? I think not.

If these neoliberal elite rush towards setting precedent, where online teaching becomes the new normal (or the way of showing excellence), then we also risk losing out on a number of experienced educators who have not been able to adapt to the sudden change of new technology. Human Capitalist Theorists will say that this phenomenon is part of the economy’s evolutionary life (Livingstone, 1997). But saying this removes the affectional value of human beings. Education should not be a conveyer belt for human capital in an economy. The dangers and negative side effects of that philosophy are huge, but the most important aspect of having education feed a conveyor belt for Human Capital is that is takes away teachers (and learners’) critical skills and pushes them towards the preconceived notions of economic life and the capitalist rat race that is inextricably linked to it. Education, I believe, should be about forming and moulding human beings into creative, critical thinking humans with free agency.

The original notions of neoliberalism are surprisingly similar to my belief about education. Harvey (2005, p. 2) describes the theory of neoliberalism as one that “proposes human well-being by liberating individual… freedoms… and progress”. The current neoliberal system, however, is a far cry from what its original theoretical framework attempted to achieve.

This current neoliberal system demands new, updated and relevant human capital and It does not give any second thoughts to the consequences of the lives and livelihoods of those that have become redundant. It does not seek the well-being of humans. Educators are considered mere pieces on a chessboard of the system’s self-imposed strategies. Proof of this is evident when the system harshly says that older teachers are to become obsolete if they do not upskill their knowledge of technology. How demoralising for those human beings must it be to be considered defunct and non-operational? Even worse, the system calls them ‘unwanted’ and ‘undesired’ in the Human Capital sense. How dare we set precedent in this way. How dare we toss these hard-working, selfless educators aside in the name of economic progress, excitement and fascination for technology.

I submit to you that setting precedent in this way is dangerous. As teachers across the country begin to forge a ‘new normal’ amidst the COVID-19 crisis, let us not do so to the detriment of our fellow educators and to the detriment of those we are called to educate. There is a better, moderate and less ‘invasive’ way to achieve a ‘new normal’.

Part II coming soon. 

Works Cited

Harvey, D. (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lamond, G. (2016, Spring). Precedent and Analogy in Legal Reasoning . Retrieved from The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/legal-reas-prec/

Livingstone, D. (1997). The Limits of Human Capital Theory: Expanding knowledge, informal learning and underemployment. Policy Options, 9-13.

Servaas, v. (2007). Apartheid’s Enduring Legacy: Inequalities in Education. Journal of African Economies, 849–880.

Timothy, O. (2017, March). Stare decisis. Retrieved from Cornell Law School: Legal Information Institute: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/stare_decisis

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