Online turns off connections crucial to learning, teaching

Ideas

Online turns off connections crucial to learning, teaching

The sum of teaching’s parts is lost on screen, lessening the learning experience for educators and students

Columnist
How does one pursue the intellectual, emotional, remedial and spiritual pursuits of teaching when one cannot see, hear or touch?
It's not the same How does one pursue the intellectual, emotional, remedial and spiritual pursuits of teaching when one cannot see, hear or touch?
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I am no Luddite. I love the high-level functions of the different online platforms for teaching and conferencing in real time. But screen teaching does not work for those of us who believe that this profound act is much more than the instructional delivery of important information. Teaching is more complex and more fascinating than handing out “notes” in preparation for the coming examinations. With the pandemic lockdown, I became more conscious of what I was doing in the course of teaching education policy to aspirant teachers.

For me, teaching is, in the first instance, an intellectual activity. I give no “notes” and as my PGCE (postgraduate certificate in education) students just discovered, if you are not in the class you cannot pass the course. It is in the process of a rich exchange of ideas between the professor and the students that knowledge is created, debated, shared and evaluated. It is an intellectual engagement that challenges a student’s most cherished ideas about the school curriculum: spoiler alert – the school curriculum isn’t always about children. Screen teaching in an intense, fast-moving, 50-minute lecture, where half the students have switched off their videos (for better connectivity), diminishes teaching as an intellectual pursuit.

Teaching is a profoundly emotional activity. Faced with a few hundred students, I rely on all my senses when I teach. I not only see, but hear, feel and touch as I move around the lecture room.  As I lead a discussion of government policy on corporal punishment, I notice a student whose eyes start to tear up. It is quite possible that he is recalling a harsh experience with lyfstraf. This is a cue for me to soften the tone, slow down the pace and, as I walk past the young man, place a brief, reassuring hand on his shoulder. With screen teaching, I cannot see, hear or touch, especially when the pre-class instruction is to “mute” (what an unfortunate word) yourself.

Faced with a few hundred students, I rely on all my senses when I teach.

Whether a teacher realises it or not, teaching is an inescapably political activity. You either teach to confirm students’ prejudices or you unsettle their taken-for-granted assumptions about school and society. For example, our new book, Who gets in and why, is an account of the politics of admissions to elite schools. I ask the students: “What explains white flight when black enrolments reach a tipping point?”

My teaching requires active participation and so I can see the discomforts of some white students; a few of the responses are awkward and rattle the rest of the class: “Maybe the black students are too noisy or disruptive?” I need to settle the class, as I feel on my skin the ripples of discontent flowing across the auditorium in the form of murmurs. At least the student is honest and that is a starting point for a discussion on racism. Shut down the comment and there is little chance for teaching social justice. Ignore the murmurs and the racial insult sticks. Keeping both sides in a difficult conversation on race and admissions requires that I hear and feel the class. Behind a screen, such teachable moments cannot be grasped.

Teaching is a remedial activity, given our unequal and divided past. All students are disadvantaged by a rote-learning, examination-driven, inquiry-starved school system. A nod, a frown, an eager hand shooting up all over the place are vital behavioural cues about who “gets it” on a slippery concept, such as a “theory of action” in policy analysis, and who does not. With my eyes on all students in a 360-degree view of the class, I can make instant decisions, such as redirecting, reinforcing and reconnecting learning based on what is visible to the academic teacher. It is a complex act, teaching, for if I move too slowly, I lose some students, but move too fast and you can sense the boredom. A screen does not give me those vital data points in real time to (re)adjust my teaching.

Finally, teaching is a spiritual activity. Students (sure, not all of them) come to class to connect, to be inspired, to be heard and to sense hope. Teaching is not unlike a sermon; it is intended to bring out the best in students, to point to something beyond themselves. Now imagine a gallery of muted students on your screen and try to inspire those dark blocks from a little room in your attic.

Now, I am quite sure that in the next two or three decades online learning technologies will advance to the point where some of these connecting qualities of teaching might well be achieved – as happened to the guy in one of my favorite movies, Her, who falls in love with the female (voice) on his disk operating system. It was so charming. Except it was not real.

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