Digital Learning: Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back?

By Avery Goulding, ’19

As I make my way through high school, I’ve come across a very different type of algebra along with a completely different array of teaching styles, and I’ve realized that algebra is no longer really the algebra I remember. The math we students grew up on has been tainted to fit many new learning techniques. Students are no longer taught traditional formulas or encouraged to practice mnemonic devices in order to retain the information. The result: the new methods have made algebra even more challenging.


ALEKS is an online learning program used by the math department at ELHS.

Entering high school, I was expecting a more in-depth explanation of algebra with the helpful hand of a qualified teacher to really explain the material to me so I, as a student, could get the full learning experience I needed to succeed in this subject. Considering I struggled with the material in the first place, I was in need of a little extra help. Instead, students were placed into an online learning program intended to give them an “at your own pace” experience, yet expected to complete so many topics within the site in a certain amount of time. Not only does this stress students out because they feel like they aren’t smart enough to the complete the work in the given amount of time, but it doesn’t give them a fair chance to receive the amount of attention and focus they deserve to completely understand the work. Teachers aren’t always able to get to every kid in the class, not to mention everyone is in a different position on this website which makes it hard to reach out to other students if they need to as well.

Andrew Hacker, writing for The New York Times, recently said, “A typical American school day finds some six million high school students and two million college freshmen struggling with algebra. In both high school and college, all too many students are expected to fail.”

Eventually, based on observation and experience, I realized that the general teaching method just wasn’t up to par with what it used to be to help students understand what’s going on, and is part of that expectation of failure. Students are given an electronic learning tool such as an iPad or laptop, along with some sort of website intended to teach students the material within a certain amount of time. Primarily these websites do all of the teaching, and so with an increasing reliance on computers to teach the material, teachers are not entirely able to do what they were hired to do in the first place, which is to teach hands-on math curriculum.

Matt Andreason, an algebra educator at Edward Little High School, said, “It’s complicated. Potentially technology can make things much easier. However, I think it can also make things much harder. I think it’s great that all the kids are at their own paces. What I don’t like is the lack of interaction. I know some people who would agree with this and I know some people who would disagree with this, but from what I’ve seen, most people think the old-fashioned way is the right way. My personal preference is traditional teaching. I like being at the front of the room giving a lecture.”

Eventually, I took a good look on how I have perceived math throughout the years. Popular techniques like ‘Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,’ a mnemonic device for remembering the order of operations, (parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition and subtraction) or the butterfly method, for adding and subtracting fractions, are being used less and less, if at all, because teachers want students to know more than just strategies. “I envision students dragging in a big bag of tricks into standardized tests and not really thinking about the questions,” Linda Gojak, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, tells The Hechinger Report.

Though I struggled in math, these methods were my gateway to understanding and remembering the equations and challenges of everyday math. This new style of teaching has eliminated many methods that worked, and is partially the reason so many learners today, including myself, struggle to succeed. Students are no longer allowed to connect with their roots of old school learning methods, and are forced to learn new, and sometimes unheard of techniques intended to teach a ‘better version’ of math.

The same question remains: could this be the reason so many students have grown to be confused and frustrated with math? Is this why so many now expect to fail?

I took a look at the students that are not affiliated with online learning. Almost all of these students are in either geometry or more advanced subjects in the math curriculum. These students seem to be more mathematically inclined, and have never been associated with online or electronic learning. It’s possible these students are more advanced naturally, but it’s possible that they’re more advanced because they’ve had more hands-on instruction from teachers.

Olivia Lare, an advanced math student at ELHS said: “I prefer teacher-to-student learning because you’re face-to-face with an in-person educator, instead of typing in a question on a website and having to figure it out all on your own. I know it’s supposed to be an ‘at your own pace’ kind of thing but I don’t think it gives the students the full learning experience they deserve.”

This problem seems to extend to other schools in the area as well. Meghan Morris, a freshman from Lewiston High School, said, “I think it is way easier to learn in a teacher-student setting. For my eighth grade year I had to take geometry and Algebra II online. Most of the stuff I did, I can barely remember because I didn’t have someone teaching me. I had to teach myself, basically. This year though, I am taking pre-calculus in a normal teacher-student setting and it is way better. I would never go back to the online way and I think my classmates would say the same.”

Many think we’re at the point where the Internet pretty much supplies everything we need. We don’t really need teachers in the same way anymore. I feel that we do, and even more than before in some instances. Lare and Morris proved that for me through their own experience. These students are incredibly talented when it comes to math, but in the long run, it’s all, or almost all, without the guide of technology. They are given a hands on, human-to-human learning environment where the material can be thoroughly explained and taught.

Joshua Starr, a nationally prominent superintendent, said recently in the Atlantic, “All of the computing devices, from laptops to tablets to smartphones, are dismantling knowledge silos and are therefore transforming the role of a teacher into something that is more of a facilitator and coach. And so I ask teachers all the time, if you can Google it, why teach it?”

Because Google, and other online sources, can’t take the place of a real teacher. Students need that real human connection if we want them to succeed.


Print Friendly
%d bloggers like this: