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Three Things At The Trough Got Right About Remote Learning…And One Thing It Got Wrong

In a future where schools have no teachers and no classrooms…

Does this sound familiar? My novel, At The Trough, which was published last year at NineStar Press, depicts a world where the physical school building is gone, replaced with online learning through video modules and edugames. I predicted this sort of change might occur in the next several decades, based on the troubling changes I saw in public education and in its relationship to technology and corporate power.

I did not think we would see it in 2020. But here we are.

Schools all over the country are turning to “remote learning” as a way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Students are connecting with their teachers through email, and through programs such as Google Classroom and Zoom. The results are mixed– it is probably the best that can be expected in the mad scramble to contain the virus, but is leaving a lot of students with a less-than-ideal education.

So what exactly did At The Trough get right? And what did it get wrong?

What was right:

  1. Someone is Making Lots of Money Off of Children

In At The Trough, the company EduForce has essentially a monopoly on all educational products and testing. They are so successful because they thoroughly mine student data and bombard students– a captive audience– with advertisements and opportunities to make in-lesson purchases. Well, the remote learning of 2020 has a lot of legal experts and parent groups very worried about the wide reach of companies to watch students, invade their privacy, and collect their information. These concerns are valid. Citizens have a right to privacy, but when a school requires that students utilize these programs, it puts families and students in a difficult position.

2) This Hurts the Poor Students. And the Bi-Lingual Students. And the Special Education Students. And the Homeless Students. And the Students Living in Abusive Homes. And the Students...

Sure, learning from home sounds efficient, and even fun!

That is, if your home is equipped with devices for all children in the home, if the wifi is reliable, if there is a concerned parent home all the time, and if the child is at or above grade level. But millions of American children are left struggling to comprehend the lessons their teachers are assigning remotely. Four children in a household may share a single laptop. Many children depend on going to school as a place of safety and nourishment that they do not have at home.

In At The Trough, one student is implied to have a learning disability. He has struggled through years of incomprehension, and only makes any progress in school through the help of his friend. Another character is implied to have undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Without the personal interaction with a teacher to raise the alarm, and without proper medication, she is in great peril.

3) Schools Are About Much More Than Book Learnin’

In At The Trough, one of the main characters, a former teacher, pontificates about how schools were once a place where hundreds of people came together for the good of the children Not just teachers. Guidance counselors, cafeteria workers, custodians, all of these people play vital roles in a child’s upbringing. A child may not connect with a teacher, but befriend the cafeteria aide or the paraprofessional who listens to them. Remote Learning severs these relationships. The hope is that this is only a temporary measure until the COVID-19 crisis abates. Which brings me to…

One Thing At The Trough Got Wrong:

The Speed of Change

When I wrote the novel, I assumed that the educational changes put in place by Eduforce would take years, would require a slow disintegration of individual rights and a gradual increase of corporate influence. It would take about a generation– the generation who right now is growing up with privacy-stealing apps and are perfectly fine with facial recognition technology– to put into place.

The shift to Remote Learning occurred in a matter of weeks.

Yes, it is temporary (or so we are told). But pause and consider America’s teachers. In mid-March, many of us were told to develop a way to engage our classes online instead of in-person, and we had mere days to do this. Personally, I had about 72 hours from being told our district initiative to putting it into place. And for the most part, it is up and running.

So is Remote Learning a temporary solution to a crisis? The beginning of a dramatic shift in education? Is it both? Feel free to comment below And if you haven’t read At The Trough, it’s available at as an ebook (discounted this month) from the publisher. Want a hard copy? Support my local bookshop. And there is always Amazon.

Stay safe! Stay informed! And for the love of God stay inside!

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I Did Not Create Coronavirus to Boost Book Sales!


Many readers have pointed out one response to the pandemic is eerily similar to the premise of my novel, At the Trough. In the novel, physical school buildings no longer exist. Students work from home, at their own pace, learning from pre-recorded videos.

Sound familiar?

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools around the world are closing their doors and turning towards remote learning. Teachers are using a variety of online platforms to assign and collect work for students.

I can say from my own teaching experience that this models has its advantages. I can teach while wearing sweatpants! I can use the bathroom whenever I need, and not have to hold it in for 3 1/2 hours!

But the art of teaching depends upon immediate feedback from students. A good teacher can tell pretty quickly if a student does not understand. And a proactive student can raise a hand and ask a question. That doesn’t work in this model. Especially vulnerable are special education students who depend on (and are legally entitled to) additional support with a specialized teacher. Obviously, public health and safety is the highest priority right now, but most teachers I know are chafing at this imitation of teaching.

It is dehumanizing.

At The Trough did not have a pandemic as the inciting factor to dissolve the schools (in the novel, it was a collapsing global economy and escalating school violence). But the end result is pretty similar. I’m just shocked we are at this point in 2020!

Once the COVID-19 crisis has abated, I imagine we will go back to the traditional classroom. But who knows? In my next post, I will make four predictions about how the temporary shift to remote learning will result in permanent shifts in the way we teach and learn…

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