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Reflections on Teaching through the Screen

On 16 February 2021, I was invited to keynote "Scaffolding a Transformative Transition to Distance and Online Learning," a virtual symposia at the University of Ottawa. Below is the transcript of that talk.


Last Friday night, I was watching RuPaul’s Drag Race UK. The Drag Race franchise is one way that my family has marked the seasons for quite a few years now. There’s the original Drag Race, the All-Stars competition, and now UK and Canada editions. We usually treat ourselves to take-out, and then we sit and cheer and dish and laugh for the hour while we watch. But last Friday, at the end of the episode, the cast were called to a wall-mounted TV screen, where they usually are given coy instructions for the next challenge of the day…

Except this time, RuPaul—as glamorous as ever in her wig and makeup—announced that due to the spread of the coronavirus, filming would stop immediately and everyone was to go home.

I wasn't prepared for that to happen. Since the pandemic started, TV has had a kind of timelessness. So much was filmed before stay-at-home orders that shows have offered a respite from history. Thus here I was, blissfully going along watching Drag Race as if the pandemic had somehow not affected it, enjoying the hour of laughs and fashion and dead drops as I always did. I felt secure in the idea that production had concluded before lockdown in the UK, that I was allowed this little window into normal. So, when RuPaul made the announcement, I found myself, for lack of a better word, triggered. Instead of a little window of normal, here was a sudden, swift reminder of when it all began.

I recently gave a plenary in Moscow, and I opened by remembering the start of the pandemic.

Sitting at my dining room table with my housemate, the news came across the New York Times app on my phone. People were getting sick. This new virus appeared extremely contagious. And it had arrived on the scene in China just when people there were taking a holiday. Traveling. To all parts of Asia, and also to the United States. Living in Portland, I knew that Seattle, just three hours north of me, would be a hub for that travel. That this new virus would quickly make its way to America.
I looked at my friend. “This is going to come here. Everything is going to change."

That was January 2020. The States didn’t really start locking down—to the extent that we did—until March, when, as suddenly as an announcement from RuPaul, schools closed, students went home, teachers looked to confused administrators for support and guidance, and learning went entirely quiet—for a few days, for a week—before it sputtered and lurched back again.

I’ve been doing work in digital learning for two decades—mostly on the fringe of education—but now my expertise became the expertise. Suddenly, calls came raining in. From NPR, the Guardian, The Economist, the Associated Press. Groups at my own institution, and others as far away as South Africa, asked me to come speak with them. Because this is what I have been doing. This is my expertise.

But I am not an expert. I was also unprepared. Not in the way of not knowing how to use a learning management system, or how to conduct a successful call on Zoom. I’d been working online more than on-ground for twenty years, so going remote didn’t really change anything for me. That wasn’t the problem, though, was it? The problem wasn’t the technology. The real challenge wasn’t learning apps or software or code.

The real challenge was staying connected. Genuinely connected. Remembering that someone else was out there, on the other end of the email or text message, the other side of the screen. Teachers didn’t want to lose touch with their students or their colleagues… or their friends and family.

But the harsh glare of the LCD screen is no warmth decent enough to replace a held hand, the echo of laughter in a room down the hall, a smile in full relief. We all longed for something we never knew we had been taking for granted: a too-crowded room, the polite “bless you” following a stranger’s sneeze. Maskless faces. The hint of mint on someone’s breath.

How could I, an expert in digital pedagogy, be an expert in this? This challenge? The answer was that I couldn’t be. I couldn’t tell a soul that doing this thing or that thing would work well in Zoom, or that, yes, there are surefire ways of making asynchronous discussion work. Because as relevant as those are to the questions digital pedagogy pursues, they were not the most relevant in March or April or May last year. And I don’t think they are today.

Online learning has never been what teachers and students had hoped it would be. The default approach to online education which has made institutions like Southern New Hampshire University, University of Arizona, and Western Governors University so financially successful has been aimed at a replicability, at a sameness of instruction and outcomes, that was never the goal of classroom learning. “Consistency,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Yet consistency has been the goal of learning design theory since the early days. Consistency of instructional methods, consistency of rubrics, consistency of assessment,  consistency of outcomes—all with the idea that learning not only could be proven by such methods, but that it must be.

Our learning technologies have gone a long way in supporting that consistency, that sameness. And when learning went online in 2020, more educators and students than not were treated to the wistlessness of this approach. In response to a need for more and new kinds of human contact, the traditional approach to online learning offered the sterile environment of the LMS, the cordiality of assessments aligned with outcomes, the polite de rigueur of a post once, reply twice conversation.

When they were pointed to technology as the solution to the multitude of dilemmas created by the pandemic, teachers and students didn’t find the help their hearts needed.

So I became a peddler in hope and compassion. I stood at the virtual corner on my soapbox, waving my copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed and saying to anyone who would listen: Teach through the screen, not to the screen. Screw technology; find each other.

In “Teaching through the Screen and the Necessity of Imagination Literacy,” I wrote:

Teachers can no longer control the seating arrangement of a dispersed classroom, nor can they expect that everyone will leave their children, their dogs, their spouses at the classroom door. Likewise the sounds of traffic outside the window or the construction going on down the street. Nor can they leave at the door their worries about feeding their family. Nor their hopes that their company won’t close, leaving them unemployed. These all enter into the new classroom, for the new classroom is ever also the home and all it contains …
To really understand how to teach or work or learn online, we have to remember that every learner is human, and there are no humans existing in digital space. The screen is not a venue, it’s a tool. We don’t ever teach to a screen, we always teach through the screen.

These were a long few months. Keynotes, workshops, plenaries, podcasts. And in the midst, like so many, I was taking care of my family, supporting my kid through their college graduation that could only be virtual. And taking my deeply beloved academic-conference-that-feels- like-summer-camp, Digital Pedagogy Lab, off campus and putting it online. I didn’t know how to do that, to transfer an event that depended on accidental conversations and synchronicities, unexpected collaborations and authentic emotion onto a so flat flat screen. I said to everyone, “We’re going to make mistakes because no one knows what they’re doing.” I said this to myself. Because I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was going to make mistakes. And because I was terrified too.

One of the biggest struggles we have when we find ourselves in crisis is tightening up, bracing for impact. My family stocked up: a month’s worth of food and toilet paper and just-in-case rubbing alcohol and hand sanitizer. My housemate learned to make masks, and turned out two or three dozen for the family to use. We didn’t know what to expect, and so we hoarded those things that we most feared running out of.

The same thing happens with educators. Only we tend to hoard things like grades and academic integrity. Instructional designers hoard that consistency of design across courses. Administrators hoard the stuff of seat time, attendance, and keeping class schedules running. We all worry that our most precious resource—students—will slip through our fingers if we aren’t prepared for the worst. So, we batten the hatches and we tighten the knots in anticipation of the storm.

I’ve never really heard anyone argue for a one-size-fits-all approach to learning. Not really. Even though that hobgoblin certainly informs a lot of educational theory, especially behaviorist theory. But more people than not tout ideas like personalized learning, problem-based learning, and teaching approaches that make room for difference. But in an emergency—and widespread across the emergencies of 2020—one-size-fits-all became the mode of the day. Streamline everything. Make it simple. Keep it regular. Even deeply affective approaches like trauma-informed pedagogy reinforced ideas of consistency and reliability. And so many of us nodded our heads in agreement and signed on the dotted line.

I’m not pointing fingers, unless I’m also pointing at myself. I felt all of this, too. In redesigning Digital Pedagogy Lab as an online event, I found myself looking for ways to replicate online what I always accomplished on-ground—something I know better than to try to do, and which I have proclaimed over and over shouldn’t be attempted, and can’t be done. In coaching others to deal with “the pivot,” I wanted so badly to provide a rigorous solution that would work in any circumstance. I watched other educators provide those solutions—in the way of “best practices for Zoom” and strict timelines to keep learning on track. And I watched institutions adopt software to ensure that testing could continue as usual—particularly remote proctoring services.

But there was no as-usual. And when there is no as-usual, we have two choices: hoard our resources, or read our world and fess up to what really needs to be done. Many have supposed that out of this crisis might grow a new educational approach or institution—one that might support faculty and staff to advance educational equity, and move away from the all too common one-size-fits-all approach of online learning. That kind of utopia is definitely my cup of tea, but it doesn’t happen without a capacity and willingness to rethink what we’ve always done and imagine things as they might be otherwise. Transformation isn’t serene or delightful, nor is it a survival mechanism. Transformation is a reasoned response to a reality that no longer serves our needs.

My educational philosophy is grounded in critical pedagogy, in the work of people like Paulo Freire and bell hooks. For Freire, the goal of pedagogy is the maturation of a critical consciousness—that capacity and willingness to inspect even our most foundational assumptions about learning and education, to be honest about them, and to change what needs to be changed. What that means is that critical pedagogy methodologies are often marked by the discomfort they create.

Critical pedagogy aims to deeply question our epistemological assumptions—about teaching, about education, about power, about expertise—and while this can be exhilarating, it is almost never a picnic. In fact, that’s kind of the rubric for critical pedagogy, if there is one: that it isn’t easy. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes that:

“Often when university students and professors read Freire, they approach his work from a voyeuristic standpoint… Many times people will say to me that I seem to be suggesting that it is enough for individuals to change what they think. And you see, even their use of the enough tells us something about the attitude they bring to this question.” (46-47)

I take her meaning as a forthright reminder that critical pedagogy is never a half-way endeavor. That the development of critical consciousness in ourselves and others is pretty much as unrelenting as it is important. Critical pedagogy reveals; and it is precisely that revealing that can be so uncomfortable, for even a teacher’s methods are not above examination.

In the past year, too many people have expressed sentiments like those of Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, when he said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." I think it would be wrong to see a pandemic as an opportunity, or the halting and lurching and stalling of our educational systems, something that shouldn’t go to waste. Likewise, I don’t see the kind of hefty questioning that critical pedagogy calls for an opportunity as much as it is a responsibility.

And let’s be honest. Most of us didn’t want additional responsibility added to our work, when we all wanted ‘normal’ again, and we still want ‘normal.’ That makes it hard to imagine that out of this crisis might grow a new educational approach, a new kind of institution, a constructive change motivated by this crisis.

I am an optimist, don’t get me wrong. I have been involved in a movement for critical digital pedagogy for nearly two decades and have relished every small shift I’ve witnessed. But I also think that lasting change comes from small, intentional, critical steps—decisions we make that we won’t unmake. And certainly the pandemic has inspired this kind of work across the digital pedagogy community.

Take for example:

  • Maha Bali, Autumm Caines, and Mia Zamora—faculty developers and designers who launched Equity Unbound to provide clear practices for educators to approach online learning in equitable ways.
  • Shea Swauger—a librarian who wrote a critique of remote proctoring services that use facial recognition software and started a movement on his campus to ban such services.
  • Robin DeRosa and Martha Burtis—collaborators at Plymouth State University who developed the ACE framework for hybrid teaching that puts adaptability, connection, and equity first.
  • Jesse Stommel—whose work on ungrading and new assessment has opened up that conversation in spaces it didn’t exist before.

These and many other folks have taken on the pandemic with imagination, care, persistence, and a fortitude that are the hallmarks of lasting change. But—and here is my optimism sneaking through—none of these educators is unique, except in their capacity and willingness to think again about how education should happen when our circumstances radically change. They have responded to their own uncertainty not by hoarding but by sharing, not by trying to continue business-as-usual but by imagining things as they might be otherwise.

We may want to respond to the pandemic, to the pivot online, by waiting it out, by filling in the gaps, by making do; but we must respond by taking a close look at what has happened, revising our approaches to education—even our epistemological beliefs—and letting a generosity of imagination be our modus operandi.

How is that responding and revising done? Well, if I have any “expert” advice to offer, it would be this:

  1. Change the way you teach. Ask what do you want to know about learners from the very start of your relationship? What should they know about you? What barriers might exist that will inhibit your connection to students and from student to student?
  2. Develop a digital literacy that’s an interpersonal one. Always ask: “Who is not in the room who could be?” Allow time in synchronous meetings and collaborations for connecting and relationship-building. Find back-channel and ungraded spaces for communication, like virtual office or “coffee” hours. Perhaps most importantly, develop empathy for one another in virtual or digitally-inflected spaces. But at the same time, don’t assume you understand the challenges students face. Empathy is best developed by listening.
  3. Imagine your own digital pedagogy. Ask yourself: What counts as digital? What is your overall pedagogical approach, and how does that translate or not translate to digital environments? What is the most important part of your pedagogy that you don't want to lose when you teach online?

The truth is that education didn’t need COVID-19 to make it necessary to ask these kinds of questions. As educators, we are all always already called to develop a critical consciousness about our work. But the pandemic has brought into greater focus that our assumptions—about what’s been happening in classrooms and behind the scenes and online in education—are less informed than we would like to believe. We don’t get to watch the screen and act like normal, because at every turn there’s a drag queen superstar waiting to remind us that things are not normal, and in order for any normal to return, we will have to invent it ourselves.


Sean Michael Morris

Sean Michael Morris

Sean is Senior Instructor of Learning Design and Technology at the University of Colorado Denver, and the Director of Digital Pedagogy Lab.