Friday, April 24, 2020

Remotely Teaching Humanity

It is one of the more arresting headlines I've seen in a while. Atop a new blog at Inside Higher Ed, we find this question:

Can remote teaching make us more human?

Well, now.

Short answer.


Slightly less short answer.

I suppose that anything can make us more human if we use the experience to reflect on our humanity.

Long answer.

The authors, Caroline Levander and Peter Decherney, are a pair of humanities professors "turned online learning leaders," so at least this isn't just a pair of ed tech company execs pushing their wares. But I'm not sure they make their case here. And their opening paragraph doesn't build my confidence:

Is online teaching a wasteland of impersonal interaction, dehumanizing rote learning and impoverished communication? Or is it education’s holy grail, equalizing opportunity and access, opening up classrooms to the masses, and now ensuring that the world can continue to be educated while a pandemic closes public spaces, including schools and universities?

The answer, of course, is neither. It's not a wasteland, but with the digital divide yawning widely and wildly, it is certainly not "equalizing opportunity and access."

After noting the obvious exodus to online education, they offer some historical perspective, mentioning correspondence courses, radio course and television courses. I'm not entirely sure why, unless the point is that we've tried this kind of stuff before, and it has never really caught hold and lasted. But I don't think that's where they're going.

They wrap up the survey with early online universities, MOOCs, and "celebrity professors teaching blockbuster courses to throngs of passive learners." Their point here is that while this "broadcast-style teaching" has been going on, research and technology has been creating "a mature field of online learning that fosters interactive, engaged pedagogy." Presumably this field is going to be the subject of this ongoing blog; I look forward to reading because I'm going to need convincing. But moving on...

They note that universities have been moving to offer all their courses remotely in short time, with everyone curious about the technical aids available. And now we arrive at their central point:

The biggest revelations, however, have been about the human not the technical dimension of teaching. While teaching is physically remote, we are learning that it can be much more personal than on-campus teaching. Remote teaching requires us to become more aware of the human condition of our students.

I'm cringing a little now. Levander and Decherney acknowledge that the business of coming to college allows students to leave their home situations behind, but still-- are you telling me that ordinarily college professors are truly that oblivious to the "human conditions of their students"? Because if they are, they're doing it wrong.

The authors also suggest that faculty reveal their humanity by fumbling for the mute button or asking for technical help or having the pets, children and wallpaper of their homes appear on camera. And then the finish:

The 21st-century version of the Society to Encourage Studies at Home that we have created this spring appears to be less institutionalized, less curated and less controlled than what came before. It also appears to be more human and more accommodating -- more tailored to the primal rhythms of student and faculty life, to who we really are when push comes to shove. For many, this is a great loss, and for others it is eye-opening. But one thing is clear: we aren’t going back to business as usual any time soon, and education may become more human as a result.

There's a lot to unpack here. First, I'm not sure how accurate this is-- less curated and controlled seems unlikely when you are personally controlling the device through which everything gets into your course. Every video or image or digitized anything will be selected and, well, curated by you, the professor. Nor am I sure what they mean by "more accommodating." Asynchronous instruction online is more accommodating (students can watch at their convenience), but then we're back to the broadcast-based that the authors said this was a contrast to. If we're doing synchronous instruction, then it's no more accommodating than any other class that is scheduled for a specific hour. I suppose you could be accommodating by saying, "I'm going to be in my zoom classroom all day-- just stop by when it works for you," but that seems not very accommodating for professors.

And at the end, I'm still not sure where the "more human" comes from. Because you can see one small piece of the student's home? Because you can see their faces, sort of? This whole post just keeps driving me back to the same question-- just how inhuman and institutionalized does your regular classroom have to be that this seems better? Because an awful lot of the remote teaching experience I'm hearing about from K-12s is more like this post ("Remote teaching isn't even remotely teaching"). Do you never look at your students, check to see their body language, their facial expressions? Do you never have them write anything that involves any of their own personal experience or background? Do you never talk to them? And how hard is it to maintain a steely professorial wall so that none of your own humanity shows?

Maybe it's the difference between K-12 and college educators. K-12 study teaching, and college profs mostly don't. College students are more grown and better at not letting their raw young selves hang out all over the place. Universities are okay with putting a few hundred students in one giant classroom.

Or maybe when Levander and Decherney will, in the weeks ahead, unveil some specifics that help me better get what they're saying. But mostly at this point I'm thinking that all of this human stuff was completely doable when you were in your classroom, and in fact should be more doable for a college professor who is not tied to a classroom for seven straight hours five days a week. It will still be doable when your online courses have gone the way of instruction via radio broadcast.

1 comment:

  1. Silicon can now officially be designated the drug of choice for edu-meddlers.