Digitising critical pedagogies in higher education during Covid-19

For anti-racist and anti-imperial educators seeking to cultivate critical pedagogical practice that breaks away from the imperatives of the current neoliberal order, the challenges in transposing creative and student-centred approaches of the embodied classroom into a rapidly-transitioned digital learning environment during Covid-19 are many.

The rushed transition from physical classrooms to digital spaces should not be uncritically taken as an opportunity for a more permanent transition, and entails many dimensions that are not self-evident.

Some of the challenges of digitising critical pedagogies are relatively generic and might apply to a pre-pandemic world. But our moment is particular because the scale and rate of change is destabilising, global and – as we know of the histories of capitalist and imperial crises – has the potential to be used as a cover to introduce other policies that have little to do with the declared goals and with the immediate need to contain the virus.

Digitalisation does open up opportunities for democratisation of knowledge through increasing collaboration and availability of information and materials online (whether in the form of online lectures, papers or other digital artefacts). But these opportunities are counteracted by major downsides, such as the heightened potential for surveillance and for retrenchment and exploitation of lecturing staff.

Some of our own recent informal academic conversations on Twitter and Zoom have highlighted these pressures upon critical scholars, who are committed to teaching well, but also to fighting against the commodification of higher education. How do we work to ensure that excellent digital teaching does not provide institutions with the chance to cut teaching positions and to increase precarity?

For anti-racist, anti-imperial and decolonial teaching and learning, educators face the additional dilemmas of being targeted, marginalised, doxed and harassed online. The rise of Zoom as an efficient videoconferencing tool for digital teaching has also seen disturbing trends, such as the “Zoombombing” of faculty of colour and anti-racist educators: people who are not part of the class have infiltrated Zoom virtual classrooms and disrupted activities with racist and sexist content.

This hacking of the classroom also poses a threat to the tacit contract of keeping the content of the classroom for students only – intruders can take content from the digital classroom and reuse it for malicious attacks on the targeted faculty.

To discuss these issues in more depth, in May 2020, two of us (Amber Murrey and Steven Puttick) organised a webinar that brought together six scholars to reflect on anti-racist and anti-imperial digital teaching in times of Covid-19 (video of the webinar is available here). The perspectives of panelists from Bhutan, China, the United States and the United Kingdom threw some light on how technological, personal, regional, institutional, and infrastructural factors, and the particular moment in which institutions responded to the pandemic, shape and inform educators’ work in digital teaching spaces.

One reflection that captures the concerns emerged in these debates is whether the rapid transition to digital teaching has unleashed some kind of monster, a Frankenstein of sorts. This “Frankenstenian” model of education, as associate professor at Syracuse University (US) Farhana Sultana put it, is one being cobbled together from bits of our previous world brought forward into the current moment. The risk is that pre-pandemic injustices and exclusions are also carried forward and reinforced, in old and new forms.

What does digital teaching look like during a pandemic?

Part of the value of our exchange was to open avenues for cross-regional and interdisciplinary discussion about teaching, at a time when countries and institutions are turning inwards. Rather than looking at the ways in which institutions respond, our focus was on the experiences in digital classrooms from the perspectives of teachers. This includes the ways in which educators create –surreptitiously, actively, collaboratively – critical space within hierarchical and digitising institutions. How are the relationships between teachers, students, teaching resources and knowledge shifting?

Our students across the world face complex material, financial, mental and infrastructural challenges. At the beginning of what was a sudden transition to online instruction, one of us (Farhana) created an online survey for students to determine where and how they were learning during Covid-19, and the challenges they faced. The survey revealed that considerable forms of labour, including care work, done by faculty and students during the pandemic were rendered invisible during the transition period.

This shift requires the creation of learning materials that can be accessed remotely and at different times (what is known in the digital learning field as “asynchronous learning”). Working collaboratively with students to reconfigure course syllabi was helpful in addressing changes that were needed to account for different expectations, abilities and opportunities for accessing the virtual classroom. Enacting anti-imperial, decolonial, feminist pedagogy was challenging, as the transition to digital teaching caused a decline in active student participation and engagement in virtual classrooms.

Holly Oberle, lecturer at Wenzhou-Kean University (China), explained that her institution effectively moved all coursework online during an intensive four-day period. Faculty paired up with IT specialists to create content and upload online via the Blackboard Learn learning management system.

One result of this rapid move is that faculty teach or oversee student’s digital coursework with materials that they have not developed themselves. Models of digital teaching in which educators curate materials developed by others present challenges, particularly for feminist, anti-racist and other critical pedagogies. The outsourcing of pedagogical oversight and decision-making can reproduce dominant Eurocentric bodies of knowledge and ways of knowing.

Beyond their pedagogical limitations, such models also bolster the marketisation of university spaces, in which teaching materials are standardised for mass production, and academic activities are carried out in ways that can enable the circumvention of labour organisation and strike action.

Lesley Nelson-Addy described her unique experience as both a doctoral student and PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate of Education) tutor at the University of Oxford. There are particular challenges facing courses with significant amounts of placement (or “practicum”) — all of which is now, at least temporarily, impossible. Reciprocal eye contact, a key means of non-verbal communication, is not possible online. The challenge of interpreting non-verbal cues creates barriers in the student-teacher relationship, including shaping how teachers engage in person, noticing, and then offering reassurance, probing questioning and encouraging collaboration. This rich interpersonal non-verbal relationship is flattened in a sterile chat sidebar. How are relationships being reformed without these in-person contacts? Having lost that dimension, might other ways of seeing, listening and relating be enhanced? These are all questions that spring from reflecting on the current moment, and that should be addressed through more critical research and engagement.

We know from the scholarship of Safiya Noble and others that the digital world is not a flat world, but that it reproduces or exacerbates the racisms and inequalities of society. In Zimbabwe, Josiah Taru describes online teaching during the pandemic as a “digital tragedy”. In our webinar, Sayan Dey from the Royal University of Bhutan spoke about the difficulties of online teaching, even amongst relatively small numbers of students with access to smartphones and tablets, given the rural/urban internet access divide in Bhutan, and the consequences of the shutting down of cafes and other venues catering to foreign tourists (which otherwise provide Wi-Fi for guests). There is a need for faculty consideration of the data and bandwidth requirements for students.

Derek Ford, assistant professor at DePauw University (US), has experimented with collaborative and disruptive studying online. He is working against the neoliberal logic of “learning” as a mode of education driven by results and focused on acquiring a predetermined set of information or tools. He described a reimagination of the university in which the emphasis is on “studying”, rather than “learning”. Studying indicates the importance of critical thinking, self-directed spontaneity and growth of creative knowledge. Ford has engaged with digital tools for their disruptive promise, encouraging students to productively “Zoombomb” the digital classroom and use Loomies (virtual facial masking available for live digital exchanges) to anonymise interactions and challenge academic hierarchies. Other student-driven and collaborative activities include 1-minute lectures on Instagram, in which the professor posts a 1-minute lecture and each student follows with their own creative 1-minute addition.

Progressive potentials?

Our intention in hosting the conversation was not to seek to identify a single model or set of guidelines for how educators should respond to the digital transition across different contexts. No such model exists. The range of experiences of educators from China to the UK shows the need for context-specific adaptations. We wanted to share grassroots teaching approaches and acknowledge the difficulties of responding to Covid-19 as critical pedagogists. This includes the strategic understatement of certain digital pedagogies when its replication or publicity endangers educators.

Sneha Krishnan, associate professor at the University of Oxford, drawing together panelists’ contributions, made the point that we would not have had our discussion with people from so many continents if ours had been a physical event. And indeed, a number of op-eds and webinars have focused on how digital openings offer opportunities, stressing that there is hope in the potential space opening up, and the potential futures yet to be realised that are springing from this moment. As geographer Noel Castree and his colleagues noted in a recent academic editorial, “asking revolutionary questions is a mark of true responsiveness to a world that is presently shaking us to our social and environmental foundations. … the mind-opening potential of the [Covid-19] crisis should surely not be squandered”.

As we face the Frankensteinian features of digital teaching during a pandemic, we find ourselves caught between the urgency of action and the wisdom of more deliberative and patient engagement. Critical pedagogists are dually challenged to make genuine efforts to teach well in unprecedented circumstances, and to push against the increasing exploitation of higher education workers. Our challenge is to use the insights and critical reflections of our moment to create critical, anti-racist and inclusive studying spaces, in ways that resist the neoliberal tendency towards policy standardisation and replicable models, and the job cuts that often come with it.

Amber Murrey is an Associate Professor of Human Geography and Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford. Her twitter handle is @AmberMurrey

Steven Puttick is an Associate Professor of Education and Fellow at St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford. His twitter handle is @Steve_Puttick

Farhana Sultana is an Associate Professor of Geography at Syracuse University. She is also the Research Director for Environmental Collaboration and Conflicts, PARCC (Program for the Advancement of Research on Conflict and Collaboration). Her twitter handle is @Prof_FSultana

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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