Like many of you, I rushed online mid-March, scrambling to move my course into a virtual space while on the go and in the midst of a new, mysterious pandemic. The Summer Term has offered some more possibilities to get better prepared and to think in advance about how to transition online while taking a pedagogical approach that is similar to the one I use in person. While my goals and intentions are the same, the methods can look very different online. McLuhan’s famous articulation that “the medium is the message,” was never more accurate than in the new COVID-19 educational landscape. Here are some observations I have made so far accompanied with some suggestions (but no prescriptions).
Teaching in a time of uncertainty:
There is no nice way to say it: no one really knows what is going on…Maybe some of you, like me, keep scrolling between different news outlets, trying to understand medical data, compare predictions about vaccines, or estimate the chances of economic depression. Maybe I’m just trying to find reassurance, because at times it feels like the end of Western democracy is fast approaching… (while Western democracies are far from being ideal, I’m not sure we have better alternatives). The last few months make one feel very vulnerable. Even being privileged (in my case, middle class, White Canadian living in the Greater Vancouver area) doesn’t seem to give me enough certainty that I can protect my kids from the unknown. Many people feel the same under much more extreme conditions. As always, social positions like race, class, and gender play a huge part in one’s lived-experiences. As Damian Barr succinctly tweeted: “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm, some are in yachts and some have just the one oar.”
In such times productivity can act as a double-edged sword: It can be very challenging to stay focused and be productive (data already shows that women academics’ productivity has sharply dropped) but it can also act as an ultimate escape, being buried in work as a way to shield oneself from the world. Both tendencies are problematic: As teachers, family and community members, we don’t have the privilege to freeze; we have people dependent on us. But if we keep on producing work (i.e., in our case, courses) as if nothing huge has happened, it’s a sign that we are probably too disconnected from the suffering and the pain that so many people, including our students, experience nowadays.
As promised in my preface, I have no prescriptions… but my suggestion is to stay connected with these feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability and let them be reflected in our teaching. We can listen to our students, bring the world into our online courses, and help our students navigate these uncertain times (we might discover that they help us just as much!).
Online learning has real potential to improve teaching (but also comes with big risks):
To be completely honest, I don’t like online teaching. I much prefer going to class and interacting with students face to face. I like the process of entering a space with complete strangers and leaving it at the end of the term with a sense of community. It seems harder to go through this process online. But I do like teaching, and the main reason that I chose teaching as my career was to open spaces for dialogue, critical reflection, and potential transformation. For me, it’s always beyond the content area. It’s about the possibility to think together with our students about where they are positioned in this world (and why), and who they want to be (and how).
For that reason, I cannot just shove my courses online as a mere series of assignments or handouts, and I also cannot just say that I reject online learning, and that this is my academic freedom. Because to reject online learning at this time means to reject the accessibility and the one chance of success in higher education that many of our students have. And most importantly, I need to find ways in the online space to know my students and to love them. It’s easier online to see our students as a sum of their submitted assignments. Grading might be easier… But if I don’t see my students and if I don’t love them, how can I educate them?
When I looked for frames to help me conceptualize my online teaching I came across this book: An Urgency of Teachers that gave me the language I was looking for. It opens with a clear statement that:
Digital technologies, like social media or collaborative writing platforms or MOOCs, have values coded into them in advance. Many tools are good only insofar as they are used. And tools and platforms that do dictate too strongly how we might use them, or ones that remove our agency by too covertly reducing us and our work to commodified data, should be rooted out by a Critical Digital Pedagogy. Far too much work in educational technology starts with tools, when what we need to start with is humans. (Stommel & Morris, 2011)
When I design my courses, I try to do it with humans, my students, in mind. Thinking about their worries, their dreams, and their uncertain future. I try to create spaces within my courses to get to know them, to let them have a voice, to care for them (and for them to care for each other). I want to make sure that my courses is not centered around technical discussions about assignments and submissions and deadlines, but rather around learning and engagement.
How to do this? Again, no easy prescriptions…. but I’m happy to share more and think together in our Intercultural Dialogue Corner, and Intercultural Workshops. From the “virtual office” hours I had in my courses so far, and from some of the interactions happening on my Moodle sites, it seems that many students are actually quite happy with online learning, and that the work that they do is no less (and in some cases better) than in face to face courses. Is it perfect? Definitely not! Do I still prefer face to face teaching? Definitely yes! But there is enough rationale for me to explore online teaching in a profound, creative, and critical way.
Take it one tool at a time:
I don’t know if you share my feeling that we are all surrounded by tutorials, webinars, blogposts (the irony hasn’t escaped me), and endless other teaching tools. These are super helpful, and I don’t know what I would do without the great support of Learning Technologies team within the Commons (If you haven’t done so yet, check the Keep Teaching website)
However, tools can be too much AND not enough at the same time. Let me explain this seeming contradiction. Tools can be too much when one doesn’t know what they actually need. I can scroll through hours and hours of tutorials and find myself more confused than when I started… Now that we have the privilege of time (unlike when we had to rush online midway through the term) it is important to start thinking from scratch about our course and its goals, as well as about the content and our pedagogical stance, and only then to look for the tools that make sense. Tools are not enough in the sense that they should not dictate how one teaches, but rather reflect one’s teaching preferences. It’s like when you go to the supermarket. You want to know in advance if you want to make pasta or salad before you buy the ingredients.
After finding the tools that you need, another important thing is to be patient with yourself (easier said than done!) and to try to keep a sense of humour…It can be quite frustrating to learn numerous new tech tools (and there is an age factor in this as well. Our students/kids learn these things way quicker and have much better intuition). Some of my highlights so far were recording a Kaltura video without realizing I had my pyjamas in the background, and a series of Kaltura videos that “froze” midway, leaving me looking like a very scary monster … But, each of these frustrations led to a new skill gained. I now know much more about online learning than I did in March, and I believe that I can apply this knowledge to making my teaching better, even when in-class learning resumes. It is very likely that the landscape of higher education is about to change for good, and as educators, we need to have the conceptualization, the engagement, and the skills to take an active part in this process