Opinion | The Future Was Supposed to Be Better Than This

Perhaps nowhere has seen the promised Eden of technological futurism run into the hard ground of earthly reality more harshly than in education. In 2018, Vivek Wadhwa, a professor of entrepreneurship and innovation in Silicon Valley, predicted that “the future of education is virtual,” powered by AI enabled VR headsets. Instead, the online learning most students, teachers and parents experienced this spring, and are unfortunately continuing this fall, is best characterized as a vast disappointment. Technical failures abound at every turn, work is left untouched and many feel abandoned. In a recent survey of educators from 59 countries, over half said that the experiment in e-learning had resulted in students learning less than they would if they were in school.

I saw this with my own kids, who started kindergarten and second grade in mid-September, in-person at our local public school. Each day in lockdown was a long battle with a poorly designed software interface, punctuated by vocal battles over assignments. “I miss school,” my daughter said one night in April. I reminded her that she was attending school, just online. “No, Dad, real school!” she replied, breaking into tears, “Online’s just the work, without any of the fun!”

Now, she and her brother put on their masks and run laughing into the schoolyard to meet their friends each morning, while their brave, brilliant teachers prepare them for another day in the world. It turns out that school is more than just facts transferred from textbook or website to learners. It is an immersive environment that facilitates learning through a purposefully designed physical space and carefully crafted relationships that equals something far greater than the sum of its parts. Something that cannot be fully conveyed through a flat piece of glass.

While the digital tools we have clung to these past months are not going away, it is a false assumption that this state of emergency is a sign of the future. Learning, playing, socializing and spending all our time on the same screen, in the same pair of sweatpants, in the same house, day after day after day, isn’t the desirable utopian future we had hoped for. It’s a prison of digital luxury.

The pandemic has caused us to see the value of the real world; in the mundane joy of a drab office, the miracle of a creaky public school classroom. It’s given us a new appreciation for the singular experience of sitting around a holiday table — talking politics with relatives that we both love and cannot stand, eating way too much turkey and pie and experiencing the emotional and physical fullness that feast induces. Reality is still where the action is, and though we are forced to stick to the virtual for our safety, as soon as the pandemic ends most of us will come running back to the world beyond our screens.

Mr. Sax is the author of “The Revenge of the Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.”

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