The Online Teacher

This is a chunk from Sean Michael Morris and Lora Taub-Pervizpour’s Ethical Online Learning: Critical Pedagogy and Social Justice, published earlier this year over at Hybrid Pedagogy. It encapsulates nicely some of the themes I’ve been working on and playing with as of late. One of which is this: the Cartesian mind doesn’t exist. Just because we do something online does not mean we leave our humanity (our bodies, our emotions, our struggles, etc.) behind and “become” data or an avatar. Humans are embodied in all that we do and what we do, then, becomes an extension of our embodiment, not a denial of it.

Student voices are hard to hear online. Jesse Stommel and I wrote once that,

In the room with our students, we can know if they’re engaged and participating, even as each of them participates in his or her own unique fashion. In an online discussion forum, it’s difficult to observe such nuance, and impossible to quantitatively evaluate it.

And if we aren’t concerned with quantitatively evaluating student voices, it’s just as hard to qualitatively observe them, too. In part, the technology is to blame, especially the LMS. The old rule, now practically an adage, “Post once, reply twice” is essentially the epitaph for online learning. Best practices like that one, tools like the discussion forum—or better tools, like the web annotation software Hypothesis which nonetheless bends to the will of the discussion forum, granting pedagogical privilege to an edtech that convinces us the pedagogical arc of the universe bends towards analytics, assessment, and grading—these silence student voices by omitting them.

That the discussion forum could be considered at all a digital answer to the kind of work Eric and Gracie have done should give us pause. Where is social justice in the discussion forum? Where is activism? Where, even, is something as spontaneous as a train of thought or a digression that leads to new, unexpected understanding?

Edtech is only partly to blame for the silencing, or omission, of student voices. We ourselves, faced with the technologies we employ online, see their limitations instead of their affordances. We become convinced, because the LMS doesn’t measure for such things, that online there are no pregnant pauses, no under-the-breath chuckling, no eye rolls. Likewise, we can be convinced that engaged conversation, moments of genius, and sudden bursts of creative thinking don’t exist too. In fact, it is as though the students we see in the world are not the students we have online.

When the screen flickers and the digital classroom appears, a strange thing happens. It could be useful to call this occurrence “distance.” Distance between here and there, me and a student, distance from my location to your location, distance from your affective needs to my ability to support those needs, distance in time between when you post a question and I give my reply. Distance education. Distance learning.

Over the course of half the year in 2017, I, Sean, worked with an institution in Denver that has successfully implemented an online graduate degree program. Students meet on campus one week per quarter, usually about half-way through the quarter. This is their time together, their time on campus, their time to bond, form community—and also to get to know their teachers. On-ground, teachers take advantage of having students in the classroom, enjoying the affordances of environment.

In one on-ground class, the instructor will light a candle to set the mood in the room. During my time consulting with them, I was asked “How can we bring that candle, that mood, into an online classroom? Should we post an image of a candle? Maybe an animation of a flickering flame?”

I looked at them quizzically. “Why don’t you ask students to buy a candle and light it at their desks as they start their studies?” The response was immediate. A kind of “oooooh” as the realization dawned that students are still students when they go home; bodies in the classroom become bodies at their desks. Somewhere we can’t see, granted, but still subject to all the natural laws and human emotions and intellectual needs, regardless of distance.

The finest trick of the LMS is to persuade us that human students don’t exist online. That they are transmogrified from flesh to data. The LMS becomes an alchemical inhibitor, turning gold into lead.

But the truth is, there remain pregnant pauses. There remain sotto voce chuckles. There are groans and eye rolls. Just as there are lively conversations, brilliant insights, and ecstatic creative aspirations. The students we see in the world are the students we have online. Bodies in seats with brains chomping for new ideas and information, hearts both timid and brave enough to learn.

But there is something different, something affectively different. Most students taking fully online classes are doing so in relative solitude. In fact, they’re counting on you to make not just the ideas in your class, the content the LMS is so content to deliver, synthesize, they’re also counting on you to make their experience of education synthesize.

For the vast majority of students learning in fully online classes, the LMS may be their classroom, but you are their campus. You are their connection to what it means to be a student. They don’t get to go to rallies, they don’t get to experience the rush between classes, they don’t have sweatpants and tee-shirts that remind them where they go. They have the little university logo squashed into top left corner of the LMS. And they have you.

And you, all of you, are more than a concatenation of best practices. Your teaching more than the LMS can contain.

Best practices will not give these students voices. Best practices will not help them build community. Best practices will not align them with their own agency. You have to do that. And this is challenging. Lora asks, “How do we harness this understanding in our teaching practices to promote student well-being, voice, and agency in a time when it is most needed?” That question is hard enough to answer when we are in the room with students. It’s much harder to answer when we are teaching learners we may never meet or speak with in person.

In truth, when it comes right down to it, that’s what best practices are for. To guard us against the incalculable difference of students we can’t see. To keep us from having to guess what goes on on the other side of the screen.

And honestly, we shouldn’t go into cyberspace unequipped. But instructional practices that build upon a lineage of teaching machines, Skinner’s behavioral antics, and Bloom’s taxonomy will not equip us to embrace student voice while teaching with the full range of our own skills and insights.

What we need instead, I think, are “best habits.” And, these best habits parallel the best habits of education, and can be derived almost entirely from an engagement with critical thinking about what online learning really is. It’s not too much to ask, really, since each of us is in their position in academia at least in part due to our capacity for critical thinking. It is exactly this critical thinking edtech does not want us to do, and against which they offer their intercessory critique of themselves. For if we do not have the silence or the space to consider our own pedagogy, we cannot think against their machines’ pedagogies, either.

And so the challenge is to turn resignation into resistance, and to think about our pedagogies. It is ethically necessary that we do so, and it is the only way to teach online.