Times which Require Greater Care: Ethos in Online Learning

Jumping into online offerings the way so many universities are wont to do these days is unhealthy for faculty and students alike. That move must be considered, careful, slow, and deliberate.

Times which Require Greater Care: Ethos in Online Learning

During my short tenure at the University of Mary Washington, my job focused on faculty development. My hire as lead instructional designer was, in truth, a smokescreen for using an existing line to bring me on permanently as the director of Digital Pedagogy Lab. But beyond the Lab, I was very early asked to mentor a small cohort of faculty as they began the transition to teaching online.

As with most colleges and universities, UMW had aspirations toward more online curricula, and hopes that online offerings would create an uptick in enrollments, especially among the university’s non-traditional and adult learners. UMW appeals to a largely regional population of students, in a region where professional labor needs support and development beyond the two-year college. In many ways, UMW was uniquely poised to create robust online programming for people already in the workforce, or students hoping to complete their undergraduate degree without taking time off from their jobs.

The majority of faculty at the university had not taught online when I arrived. Many of them made use of Canvas as a grade book and by filling up the LMS with downloadable readings and pdf versions of their paper syllabi, but few were using the LMS for teaching. Which made sense: the majority of classes were held in face-to-face, on-ground environments. And when these faculty—those in my cohort and others—first looked (askance) at online teaching, their foremost anxieties circled around the very specific hows: How do I format a page? How do I create quizzes? How do I design the course? How do I make sure students are doing the reading?

I responded to these anxieties by asking teachers to step back, away from the hows and into the whys and whethers. To the panicked (literally, shouting) faculty member who said “You aren’t helping me,” I responded that it’s more important to understand who we are as teachers than to understand the instructional design techniques that more often than not obfuscate teaching and learning. And to the dean’s insistence that all, or at least most, of the cohort must design an online class by such-and-such a date, I answered that not everyone should teach online, and so first there must be a discernment process for each of them.  

I started with ethos. With care. Care for these teachers, care for the students who would be in their classes.

Jumping into online offerings the way so many universities are wont to do these days is unhealthy for faculty and students alike. That move must be considered, careful, slow, and deliberate. With rare exception does online programming actually boost enrollment enough to pay for itself, and even more rarely does it help a university attract students. The point behind most online programs is not to expand teaching and learning, but to increase enrollment and graduation numbers, and to create a “cash cow” for the school. This is less about ethos and more about building a marketable brand.

Likewise, instructional design as a field does not begin with values or care. It begins with a mechanical notion of student success, of achievement that can be quantitatively measured, and it relies heavily on an old (but generally unquestioned) principle that learning outcomes are king and assessments must match outcomes (which, in turn, means that content must always bend toward assessment, thereby supporting outcomes). Instructional design is, first, about efficiency and replicability. There are many instructional designers out there who are challenging these ideas—many who care as deeply about teaching and pedagogy as faculty might—but historically the lion’s share of instructional, or learning, design is focused on getting students to meet learning outcomes.

In other words, most of online teaching and learning takes place in a cold, cold world.

When I worked with the cohort at UMW, my goal was to start with compassion, care, joy, delight, exploration, and discovery. But this couldn’t happen unless I could encourage faculty to turn away from their more mechanistic, instrumental concerns with teaching online, and instead ground themselves in the idea that all learners—online or otherwise—remain utterly, completely, indelibly, imperfectly human. This was something they understood about the students in their face-to-face classrooms, and something they understood about themselves as teachers in physical spaces. But somehow, when students disappear behind a screen, behind the lifeless, listless LMS, those same students who are so human in person become strange unknown quantities, whose behavior requires more control and surveillance. As if, freed from the watchful eye of the teacher in front of the room, all students not only lose interest in learning, they devise ways to cheat the system.

If all of us who disappear behind a screen become cheaters and gadabouts, I wonder at what point we hold the mirror to ourselves as teachers when we first begin to teach online? Online learning—both the phenomenon of it and essentially all of the technology supporting it that universities invest in so much (the LMS, Turnitin, ProctorU, etc.)—pricks up our suspicion of otherwise totally trustworthy people. And the companies who profit from online learning are also those in whose best interest it is to reinforce that suspicion. Their businesses are built on not trusting students.

This is why when I advise any faculty who teach or are planning to teach online, my first bit of advice is to remind them that neither they nor the students they teach change just because there’s a screen between them. We teach through the screen and not to the screen.

In the current climate of online teaching, a few universities are attempting to set the pace: Arizona State University, for example, and Southern New Hampshire University. And in my home state of Colorado is UNC Global, a self-branded and practically self-contained online learning option for students at the University of Northern Colorado. Each of these programs has a similar character: they are driven by brand, fueled by the labor of thousands of adjunct teachers, and their goal of student success relies on uniform courses designed within specific parameters, and all marching to the beat of the same drummer. These are not usually courses created by teachers for students, but rather ones mostly assembled by instructional designers for systems that churn students from their first step through the door to their last breath as they graduate.

These oversized online programs are systems that control, monitor, funnel, crank out, and produce. They are more loyal to brand values than to the students they profit from or the teachers they underpay. I would be wary to call what they do ‘education’ for fear that we might replace the rest of education with this model. My fear is justified. The LMS was created to support the kind of design these universities use to propel students through school. As Audrey Watters writes, “The LMS is a piece of administrative software. There's that word 'management' in there that sort of gives it away ... that this software that purports to address questions about teaching and learning really works to 'manage' and administer, in turn often circumscribing pedagogical possibilities.” The proliferation of the LMS in classrooms across the country should be at least noteworthy if not cause for alarm.

The thing is, ethos cannot be divorced from practice. There are teaching practices which are closely tied to the ethos upon which they are founded; but for too many teachers today, practice is practice, justifiable and respectable in and of itself. Grading, for instance, has been rarely if ever questioned. Testing, quizzes, assessment, too. Worse are the sorts of bad habits we enact for reasons we can’t possibly name—the use of Turnitin, for example, or the nagging desire to remote proctor exams (instead of, say, offering them “open book”).

This all becomes so much more complicated in times of urgency or crisis—whether in response to a university’s shrinking budgets or something more threatening, like the COVID-19 outbreak that’s causing so many schools to close campus and move classes online. Under duress, people faced with something as complicated as digital or online learning will look for the path of least resistance. And educational technology has cornered the market on making administrators and teachers feel secure that learning can take place wherever, no matter what, and even that it’s “better” when mediated through bureaucratic platforms like the LMS.

However, these are times which require even greater care. You will need to improvise and be patient. Students will need to improvise and be patient. Urgency doesn’t necessitate haste. In the face of students and teachers suddenly working from home, or in the face of schools wanting to attract new students who will never visit campus, it’s essential to adopt a pedagogical habitus that doesn’t stray from the mission of public education, from the liberatory practice of inquiry, the equitable practice of collaboration, or the compassionate practices of listening and learning before leading.

Photo by Owen Lu