Every year, hurricanes batter the coasts of Florida. But people stay; they don’t move away. Every year, wildfires and mudslides endanger those living in Los Angeles. And people stay. Every year, institutions of higher education face budget crises, shortfalls, administrative bloat, and student attrition. And. we. stay. This year, the proverbial shit hit the fan when COVID-19 forced everyone indoors and online. The ensuing rush was a veritable fox hunt for the technological solutions that would provide continuity as we lost our campuses and our communities. Leave the classroom, but get back to class as early as technologically possible. And largely, the “view halloo” was shouted on the first sighting of Zoom and Slack and Flipgrid.
I have been in digital learning in one form or another since 1999. But I have never been asked to speak on the subject more than I have been these last ten weeks. And this is largely due to the fact that my expertise, once seen as fringe or suspect or chancy, has now become the practice upon which education must wager its future.
And yet: my expertise is digital pedagogy—specifically critical digital pedagogy—which resides more in the relationships between teachers and students than it does the delivery of instruction. I’m often thought of as the “tech” guy, but what I actually do is very intentionally human. So as I’m approached with questions about what technologies might help build community online, what platform I might recommend for ensuring students don’t cheat, or what digital solution I know of that will enable meaningful discussion, I’ve found myself answering: teach through the screen, not to the screen. Find out where your students are, and make your classroom there, in a multiplicity of places.
When I first started teaching online a dozen years ago or more, my students were scattered across the United States and the Middle East. They were single mothers in rural communities, truck drivers who were rarely in one place for very long, first generation college students without access to a library, and enlisted men and women serving abroad. There was no classroom for them; I had to make one. With words, with conversation, with pictures, with questions. Taking an online class was a risk for many of them. They couldn’t be sure they’d finish the term, or that the state funding would come through in time to buy their books. Many of them didn’t understand how college could be different from high school, much less how learning online was radically dissimilar from classroom learning.
They came to their screens with little sense of what there was there. It wasn’t—couldn’t be—the technology that created a space for learning.
This crisis facing education didn’t need COVID-19. We have been living on an edge for a long time; and to be honest, I’m not sure which way is down. On the one side, there are administrators and administrations that suppose online programs are one solution to the retention of student populations, an answer of higher enrolment for the question of institutional sustainability. These folks have always been much less concerned with the pedagogy of digital teaching and learning than they have been the statistics that reflect success—which in turn mean saleability of their programs—and which are supported by very instrumental approaches to education, approaches that Paulo Freire referred to as “the banking model” of education. Information, or content, is handed to students, and they are then expected to echo back that information in the form of assessments. Rather than knowledge production, these instrumental approaches are focused on knowledge consumption.
But on the other thin side of this edge on which we’ve been living is a concern about online learning. That it is inadequate. That it’s a poor substitute for classroom learning. Among students, online courses are commonly considered easier, and more convenient. And this is because most of the practices of online education assume a universalisation of the learning process, one generally founded on behaviourism. In truth, most online practices, courses, and programs are a poor substitute for classroom learning, in part because they attempt to be as much of the classroom as possible. But the only thing that really transfers from the physical to the digital is lecture, rubrics for participation, and, unfortunately, our fear that students will cheat.
We have not coded for the human in education, and so, unless we know how to seek it out past digital platforms, algorithms, and surveillance tools, the human is largely left out of online learning.
The problem, as I see it, is that no one has started from the beginning. All of the online education industry has jumped the gun. Rather than any single thing bursting onto the scene, there has always had to be a moment of reflection, concentration, contemplation.
What happens when learning goes online?
No educational technology has answered or can answer that question.
The closest I’ve ever come to hearing an answer was by teaching a three-week course called Learning Online. The title’s inversion of “online learning” was intentional, as the goal of the course was, in part, to upset our assumptions about online education. And over those three weeks of digging through the archaeology of our assumptions—me and the students alike, all reflecting, concentrating and contemplating—we came up with several dozen answers, all of them grounded in a humanising of learning digital.
What’s strange about that experience is that the course has been erased by the makers of the LMS in which it resided. And so the understandings we all took from our weeks together are all that remain. The technological artefact was unsustainable. Turns out, it was the human experience that persisted.
And it’s that human experience we need to not only acknowledge but rely on now.
In a recent blog post, Audrey Watters reminds us of a statement from Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff for President Obama. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that, is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before."
In the midst of this crisis, when we are not only faced with abrupt digital teaching and the practices and complications that come with it, but also the inequities of technology upon which a light has suddenly been shone, there are many who want to make uncertainty into opportunity. Corporations dealing in educational technology want us to believe they have the solutions which will not only make this transition to online easier, but will guarantee the success of our students. And advocates for online learning—instructional designers and technologists in some cases, people like me in other cases, and also the stray administrator—see this as a shining moment when everything we know works about online education will come to light. “Teach to the screen,” they say. “It’s guaranteed to work.”
But a crisis is not an opportunity, unless it is for bringing communities together. We can plug our students into the VLE, we can mandate that they turn their cameras on in Zoom, we can use remote proctoring services to ensure they’re not cheating on their exams… But does that constitute teaching? Does that help us develop a sustainable, equitable digital pedagogy?
What happens when learning goes online? This is not a question technology can answer. It’s one we need to answer. Teachers, librarians, learning designers, students. Actually good online education comes not from the purchase of another platform, but out of dialogue, out of the will to empower everyone involved in teaching and learning to create together a digital learning that isn’t just instrumental, that isn’t just performative, but that’s authentic, meaningful, and just.