COVID’s Metamorphoses

( ↑↑↑ Stamped it, sealed it! ↑↑↑ )

Sooo…… the sudden shift to online pedagogy has been occupying my mind for virtually every waking hour of the last six weeks, it would seem.

And today, the theme that seems to have occupied my Twitter feed today is the question of what we have been doing over the last few weeks, and whether it counts as “online education”.

The jumping-off point was an excellent article by Zach Schermele in Teen Vogue, on the different challenges that students are facing as a consequence of the switch to online learning.  The following detail struck me:

Dr. Thomas Lecaque, an assistant professor at Grand View University in Iowa — who has at least one student now doing the majority of his schoolwork from a smartphone — says around a third to half of his students are still in contact with him, and many of those he hasn’t heard from lack the technology to get in touch. Their emotions “run the gamut,” he says.

“Some of them are fine and bored,” he told Teen Vogue. “Many are stressed about changed classes in the midst of all of this; some are working new jobs with new hours; some are worried about family members.”

Lecaque described distance learning as “triage pedagogy” — an effort to “stem the educational bleed as best we can in order to survive the rest of the semester.”

Maybe I’ll have time later to speculate on the experience of trying teach a student (who is armed only with a cellphone) how to write research papers.  For now, I want to look at  the term used in the last paragraph: “Triage pedagogy” — a phrase designed to specify what faculty did to wrap up a semester in circumstances that were catastrophic in every sense of the word.

But that designation is also significant in the way that it differentiates the online final lap of the semester — not only from the in-class teaching that preceded it, but also from online teaching per se.

And that distinction between “converting courses to online” vs. “online teaching” proper seems significant, as indicated by the following CHE article:

I intend to look more in upcoming days at the difference between “online education” and “triage pedagogy” (or “emergency remote teaching” as may be the more precise, if less vivid, nomenclature).

But for the moment, I’d like to take a moment to refer back to an earlier post, in which I said:

[T]he phrase bandied about in many circles is “converting courses to online” rather than “creating online courses”.  But I suspect that the discourse of ‘conversion’ (as in “Dollars-to-Euros”) is likely setting ourselves — or more specifically, our students — up for a kind of failure.

The underlying principle behind the concept of conversion is that there is a clear distinction between content and medium — between what is learned and how it is learned. 

I’m grateful that a GTA prof responded to that, to remind me of another phrase that we’re hearing in the air:

[T]he term invoked (like a mantra repeated by managers who have clearly been conditioned to use it) is ‘alternative mode of delivery’. This is a phrase I refuse to use. As a teacher, I don’t “deliver content.” I facilitate an environment in which learning (hopefully) can take place. This is the fundamental philosophical difference between faculty and (at least some) college management. They see us as in the ‘content-delivery’ business. We see ourselves as educators. I will continue fighting for the latter.

The “content delivery” discourse is problematic for many reasons, not least of which because it appears to ignore the last six decades of educational research.  (And dare I suggest that it suggests the PSE industry’s alleged concern for “student-centred learning” was, in fact, a pretext for a “customer service” model of education?)

But here’s the bigger problem: If a school is to maintain that it’s in the “content delivery” business, how exactly does any school justify students’ attending that school instead of any other?  Notice that the marketing of Ontario Colleges treats the discourse of content delivery as anathema, focusing instead on the rhetoric of transformation and actualization.

And transformation and actualization are why students come to Ontario colleges. (At least, according to the colleges’ marketing departments.)  And, until we return to the classroom, the colleges might in turn want to be a bit clearer about how they intend to structurally facilitate online classes that can live up to that promise.  (Smaller class sizes? Time to prepare innovative courses?  Programs that prioritize unique learning experiences over standardized curricula, evaluations, and formats?  Classes whose faculty have enough time to change the class throughout semester, to respond to the actual needs and interests of the specific students?)

But here’s what I know: Teachers like the letter-writer above can give students an unforgettable learning experience and a reason to attend their College instead of any other.  But that can only happen if their expertise is respected and valued, and if they’re provided sufficient time and resources to create those experiences.

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