Blue text in neon on a brick wall reads "New times for other ideas." The photo is shot from below.

Digital Detox #5: The Harm Was Always There

It’s bitterly cold this week in Kamloops. I went out for a walk today before sitting down to write this, and it is taking me forever to warm up again, even though I’m now sitting in the sunshine in my cheery home office. The walls are a soft blue and the space is decorated with art by my kiddo, family photos, and other treasured things. I can sit at my small antique desk or sprawl in my oversized, overstuffed chair. My planners and calendars are within reach and if I keep the space tidy, I can mostly feel in control of my universe. I am often joined in here by a cat and a child, but I can close the door when I need to. It’s a small space that belongs to me, and I’ve rearranged it repeatedly through the pandemic as I attempt to get it just so.

I’m so grateful and lucky to have this space that so many of us — staff, faculty, students — don’t have. A room of one’s own​*​ in which to panic. It helps.

Even though I have this lovely space, the winter is wearing on me, especially this week. Going out for a walk in this cold isn’t exactly pleasant, and already limited chats at doorways are now even shorter. The Kamloops sunshine helps a lot, but -20 is -20. I find that I am less able to access patience, lately, and quicker to get angry. I don’t want to answer emails or keep up with voicemail (how is voicemail not illegal, explain to me why we still have phones). I’m cranky.

If I’m struggling, I think in my brief, fleeting moments of not being utterly self-involved, how are our students coping? I think a lot about how valuable my space is to me, and how difficult this pandemic lockdown would have been on me in my first year, when I was still living at home with parents. I have a good relationship with my family, but it would have been a lot.

But mostly, my thoughts turn — as they often do — to students who are managing to go to school from home and keep up with their classwork in situations that are far less than ideal. I used to teach at a commuter school where most of my first-year students lived at hom. So specifically, I’m thinking about how many students are learning in home environments that aren’t or don’t feel very safe for the kind of learning they want to do, and as I cozy up in my chair to write to you, I’m thinking about all the students in my English classes in the beforetimes who used to leave their books at school or with a friend for fear of a parent finding out what they were reading in school. What does this moment feel like for them? They’re probably having a logistically difficult time making it through this period — maybe they’ve had to be judicious about their choice of classes, or forego class entirely for the moment — but then, things were always more difficult for them. 

When we first moved online, we made a lot of snap decisions that made sense in the moment. Prime among these was the move to videoconferencing as the first and only solution to lesson delivery. Of course this made sense in March: faculty had been planning for a semester of in-person teaching, and despite all the evidence, most classrooms still, eleven months on, primarily rely on lecture as the modality of instruction. We know that people perform more poorly in videoconference interviews and exams, perhaps because of the self-awareness we have viewing ourselves in these high-stakes settings, a phenomenon theorized as the Zoom Gaze. We know that so-called Zoom Fatigue is real now, because we live it. But institutions didn’t make classes smaller or, for the most part, invest in large-scale PD, and so faculty continue to lecture over videoconference. This has lots of problems for our most marginalized learners; we’ve covered the “cameras on” phenomenon in this series, but we haven’t talked a lot about the divide in access between and among students that makes accessing video more complicated than many other learning modalities. It’s easy to assume that everyone has access, but once students return home to communities outside of major centres, that’s a big assumption; in Canada, 55% of rural Canadians do not have high-speed internet access sufficient for streaming or downloading large videos, and the numbers are worse globally. We also, I think, wildly overestimate the number of students who have good internet where they live, or at least we did at the start of the pandemic; anecdotally, we often heard about students who had always relied on campus for internet access now submitting assignments while sitting outside the library or a local Starbucks, even within the city limits where good internet is available.  We tend to behave as though internet access is a human right that all our students have access to, without doing the work of ensuring that that is true. As a result, we see a disconnect between faculty expectation and student experience. Some institutions rolled out connectivity options, which was great to see, but at many more this was and continues to be a problem — and an associated cost — downloaded to students. At our campus, an awareness of our rural and remote learners helped to encourage a semi-asynchronous approach, but this kind of content development is time-consuming for instructors and often requires a lot of professional development. There’s also, of course, something powerful about seeing each other as part of a learning community — many of us have an affective preference for live video as a means of establishing connection, and that plus the intractable hold of the lecture has made transition difficult.

This is a frustrating example of a case where we know we are creating a barrier for some students (acknowledging that for some students, fully online learning has been liberating and many do show a strong preference for videoconferencing), but struggle to make changes. It’s also true that this isn’t new; it’s more widespread and urgent, yes, but completing coursework was always more difficult for students without internet where they reside, and having internet in the city where you live to go to school but not where you spend time with your family makes choosing to travel home more fraught and troubled. I also wonder about the rates and quality of captioning for students who need or prefer it, either to accommodate disability, a noisy or silent learning environment, or language acquisition. We see these students needs more clearly, now, I hope, not least because of student advocacy, but they were always there — and they were always struggling.

I come back to the intractable hold the lecture has over post-secondary education as an analogue here. I started university in 2001, and I started learning about education — thank you, Centre for Initiatives in Education, you have a lot of answer for for people who don’t find my incessant ranting persuasive or welcome — in 2002. (I know the discourse here is way older, but bear with me.) For almost all my coursework in the four years of my undergrad, and surprisingly often in grad school, people talked at me and I wrote down the things they said, and then I went home and structured my own learning through my study practice. The lecture was the primary modality by which I was taught, even as I learned at the same time about how it’s not an especially effective — that study found students in stand-and-deliver lectures were 1.5x more likely to fail than in other active learning modalities. We also know that students tend to like lectures, but that they lull them into thinking they’ve learned more than they have. When I started teaching, I definitely lectured. I like lecturing, I like it when people listen to me, it’s kind of why I signed up for all this in the first place. But it also became clear to me that even briefly interspersing my bloviation with structured discussion, paired work, and small low-stakes assignments made for better learning and better classroom community. But here’s the thing: anytime I have been confronted with a large classroom or a heavy teaching load, I have reverted to the lecture, even as I try to make it more active. It is more, and sometimes impossibly, untenable more work to break from the lecture, and we aren’t resourced effectively to do it. Hm. I sense a trend.

The fact is, there’s nothing new about most of the inequities the pandemic has laid bare, or the way educational technologies can exasperate them. The change is the greater awareness of them, or, perhaps more correctly, it’s less acceptable to pretend we don’t see them. In addition to students caught in the digital divide, we know that students with disabilities have had a much harder time in transitioning to remote learning, expressing a sense that they do not feel belongingness at their schools and are not able to access necessary supports. We also know that international students struggle whether they are unable to travel home or unable to travel to school, caught between changing government regulations; and lacking access to services on largely closed campuses or struggling to access course materials while trying to learn remotely; at some point, surely someone is going to ask how the universities can charge such exorbitant international student tuition but not, like, guarantee their course access. But these are not new crises. All these groups of students — rural, low-income, disabled, international — have been more or less poorly served by our institutions for generations. It’s harder to look away right now. And while that makes this moment harder for so many of us — whether because we are currently experiencing harm or because we feel powerless to intervene — it’s critical that the university community not look away. 

When we adopt a predatory or troubling technology, like the ones we’ve discussed in this series or dozens of other exploitative trends in edtech, like pay-to-play homework systems and data nightmare “engagement” tools we harm all students, yes. But it’s the low income student who won’t be able to afford the homework system to submit their assignments or the international student working remotely who can’t access the homework system they’ve paid for because of firewalls where they live (and yes, those student identities are not mutually exclusive). It’s the disabled student who can’t make use of the classroom engagement option because it doesn’t play well with a screenreader or because it’s not designed for neuroatypicalities. We have talked about how e-proctoring disproportionately harms students of colour and disabled students, but students with poor internet connectivity also struggle with the expectation of livestreamed exams.

In many ways, this is the story of the pandemic and its recovery: the K shape that sees some people excelling and others left behind, setting us up for a more stratified society than ever on the other side. It’s also worth noting that many of the learning and workplace accommodations, especially working and learning from home, that we were able to pivot to so quickly in March of 2020 are things that many disabled workers and learners have asked for and been refused for generations. What is possible is always contextual, and we do well to remember that as we reimagine the future. Will the university adopt the K-shape, or will we find the will and desire to do something better?

The question for the post-pandemic university is this: are we going to build back the status quo, or are we going to take the lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic and build a more equitable future for all everyone? Next week, we’ll talk about what “build back better” can really look like.

In the meantime, I’d love to know your thoughts about how Covid has laid bare inequities in the system. What haven’t I talked about here that I should have? How has your institution addressed these challenges? And what are your hopes for the future?

  1. ​*​
    (It has always bothered me that we fixate on the first part of Woolf’s call for women in the arts and not the latter; Woolf wanted women to have space, sure, but also to get paid: specifically, adjusting for inflation and changing to Canadian dollars, she wanted women to get paid like $56K/year to be left alone to do art. This is a footnote to my argument, sure, but it bears remembering.)

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  1. I have definitely lectured during pandemic teaching, even though I know it is a difficult modality. When Spring 2020 ended with the pivot, I actually went to fully asynchronous readings, videos, and activities because my home internet wouldn’t allow for a livestream. Starting in Fall 2020, I planned a course that was ½ synchronous via Zoom and ½ asynchronous. My live sessions tended to be 20-30 minutes of lecture followed by some kind of activity or discussion. I’m doing the same this semester but have slipped into much longer lectures and fewer activities. I always record sections of the course where I am lecturing (and provide students with ways to ask questions and not be captured on the recording) and do not assign “attendance” or “participation” grades for synchronous time.

    For my Fall class, I had a number of students that said they came to class for socialization and connection. Many felt isolated and some had a full course load of fully asynchronous courses except for mine. As much as I know synchronous lecture isn’t ideal for many students, I do think (if structured with moments to connect with others) it is really valuable for other students.

    I hope I am striking a balance, but I know for my Spring course the balance isn’t right yet. It is a computer literacy class, so it has been a struggle to get students connected and keep them going in this weird space where we are learning how to use a computer fully online.

    That all being said, the connectivity has been a challenge for all students. Sitting in a support role I get a lot of inquiries from students that stem from connectivity challenges and access to equipment issues. Our library lends out laptops, but they don’t have many, and there are at least two programs to try and help low-income students purchase technology (but $500 is really not enough for a fully functional system).

    When I was a student I would be on-campus from about 7:30 am to after 10:30 pm so I could access the internet and resources on campus, working at home was a huge challenge. I know I wouldn’t have made it through a year of this remote learning. I absolutely would not be in the role I am today if this had happened during my first or second year of university.

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