September 2020

Teaching and Learning in Pandemic Times: On the Possibilities and Pitfalls of Virtual Learning Technologies

The pandemic offers an opportunity to return to collaborative models of instruction and reject regimes of academic surveillance that have long harmed disabled and marginalized students.

by Samuel Z. Shelton

Educators and students alike are living in pandemic times, and those of us who survive will likely continue to feel the effects of COVID-19 for many years to come as we attempt to recover from its incredible devastation. Pandemic times have wreaked such intense havoc on colleges and universities across the settler occupied land of the U.S. that many, if not most, institutions of higher education are now well in the throes of a nation-wide academic crisis. Educators are anxiously holding onto increasingly jeopardized positions or attempting to navigate unemployment with the thousands of others laid off since the pandemic times began. Moreover, as institutions implement plans that include the premature return of face-to-face instruction this fall term, those educators who have retained their jobs now confront a form of capitalist exploitation that academics are often protected from (to varying degrees): the serious endangerment of our health and bodily wellness for the sake of business as usual. It is the most marginalized educators bearing the brunt of this exploitation: disabled/sick educators, educators with caretaking responsibilities, and contingent educators, to name a few.

Since the beginning of these pandemic times, many colleges and universities, and the educators who give them life, have become dependent on virtual technologies as tools to enable continued teaching and learning while also mediating the risks of exposure through physical distancing. Zoom calls and the like have become such a routine part of higher education during this past year that it can be difficult to remember what education was like before, back when classrooms were full of students collaboratively engaged in the rigors of learning. Yet, this rapidly increased reliance on virtual learning technologies comes at a cost that has been disproportionately imposed across the entrenched power lines of higher education. Technology and access to it have always been shaped by systems of power and oppression, which means that the technologization of teaching and learning all but inevitably amplifies the structural inequities already afflicting educational institutions. So, even though technology makes virtual learning more feasible in an otherwise frightening, distraught moment, it also raises urgent questions about the inclusivity, equity, and accessibility of online pedagogies.

Students have increasingly turned to social media to raise concerns about “instructional” and “testing” software that monitors their keystrokes, eye movements, and physical environments.

Many people think of technology as politically neutral with the potential to cause harm and do good depending on how people use it, yet we would do well to acknowledge that technology is never innocent nor accidental: human intention is always present as the guiding force of technological development because humans imagine and construct technologies to fulfill our perceived wants and needs. The expansive technologies of the carceral state, for instance, exist because interlocking structures of power like white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, and neoliberal capitalism condition people to believe that survival depends on the capacity to surveil, regulate, and contain or eliminate “deviant” others. These technologies emerged directly from the history of colonial occupation, Indigenous genocide, and the enslavement of Africans that Americans work so hard to collectively dis-remember. In fact, one primary function of carceral technologies is to obstruct Americans from having to reckon with such histories by isolating and governing people that seek to remind us of the past and its present-day effects.

I call on this example of carceral technologies because the technologization of education has oftentimes meant the increased surveillance, policing, and disciplining of educators and our students. Those technologies which have most readily penetrated educational institutions are carceral in nature—things like cameras and metal detectors—and have been used to coerce people into alignment with social norms, or to punish them for diverging from or failing to live up to social expectations. In many ways, virtual learning technologies do this regulatory work as well. For instance, most popular course management systems allow teachers to monitor students’ participation and engagement. My university uses Canvas, which lets me track not only how much time students spend on the course site, but also how frequently they log in, which pages they click on, when they are active, and so on. A benevolent teacher may use this data to support students and make sure they are keeping up with things, but these metrics also expose students to tracking, evaluation, and punishment.

Despite all the information they collect and present about students’ activity, virtual learning technologies do not actually tell educators very much about who is in our classes, the knowledges they bring with them, their experiences, or their learning/access needs. For example, for trans educators and students (myself included), virtual learning spaces often produce exasperating situations around names and pronouns. Ty Marshall argues that Google Classroom erases trans students’ identities and generates unwelcoming learning environments by displaying legal, rather than chosen, names.[1] So, even when trans educators and students do get to share our chosen names, there is an ever-present banner of text displaying something different, potentially exposing us to harm. Moreover, virtual learning technologies tell me virtually nothing about students’ learning and access needs or the circumstances of their lives. I have to gather such information, or teach without it. Consequently, it becomes easier to evaluate students based on their shortcomings than to comprehend obstacles that might keep them from fully participating in the class.

Instruction has long doubled as a form of surveillance and control. Here, artist Louis Dalrymple fantasizes about expanding white dominance over America’s racialized and colonized subjects through rigorous discipline and instruction. Louis Dalrymple, “School Begins,” Puck, January 25, 1899, Library of Congress.

Virtual learning spaces as they exist today are generally not set up to nurture kind and meaningful relationships between educators and students. If we want to create these sorts of relationships, then we must go above and beyond technology’s default parameters. Because technology is bound to the ever-changing space of human intention, building liberatory, trauma-informed, and healing-centered relationships through virtual learning platforms requires that we bring creativity to teaching now more than ever. And, students need to be centered here because they are experiencing some of the harshest impacts and because of their incredible capacity to dream up alternatives to what exists today. Whenever I teach online, I actively seek out students’ perspectives about how I can make our shared virtual space more responsive to their experiences/needs. I do this primarily through weekly check-ins and reflective assignments that ask students to practice self and community-care and to think about what is going well in the class and what could be going better. I use this feedback to inform my use of technology the rest of the term, which might mean making shorter videos, using different platforms, incorporating multimedia, etc.

So, given the many complexities and difficulties of these pandemic times, how can educators more effectively navigate this historical moment of technologization while also caring for ourselves and our students? My belief is that we can do the most good by first acknowledging the harmful impacts of technology, especially the ways it reinforces structural inequities, and then working to establish more accessible, accountable virtual learning spaces through pedagogies of kindness and mutual aid[2] that place survival, healing, and connection first. Even though pandemic times make this moment precarious and confusing for all of us, educators now have a unique opportunity to explore pedagogical approaches based in love and compassion. There are trials and tribulations to be sure, especially as the Trump administration continues to sacrifice our safety and well-being in favor of profit, but there is also an opportunity to practice accountability and build relationships with one another that are deeper, more just, and more care-filled than ever before. Technology can certainly get in the way of such relationships, yet we can also use technology to resist isolation and oppression by forming networks to ensure everyone’s needs are being met as fully as possible.[3]

Video conferencing, social media, and the ever-increasing number of mobile applications provide us with the power to build care and mutual aid networks that counteract the mental, emotional, and physical dangers of isolation while also protecting the most vulnerable/impacted among us. During these pandemic times, which have uncoincidentally also been times of great civil unrest and even revolutionary protest, we have witnessed the depths of hatred that have run through this nation since its violent creation, but that hatred has also brought about astounding acts of love, generosity, and solidarity. Through such acts as buying groceries for each other and forming blockades against carceral state violence, people are demonstrating the transformative potentials of our interdependence. For educators teaching in pandemic times, the task falls upon us to bring mutual aid into virtual learning spaces, which might mean using online applications to connect students with community activists and organizers, or helping students learn to navigate technology more safely and intentionally, or any number of other things. We have a responsibility to use our positions to get students thinking about how they can make the world better and to build with them tools to act for justice.

Older students help instruct younger ones in an Italian 19th century Lancaster model school, which emphasized peer-to-peer instruction as a way to democratize access to education. Image via Wikimedia.

We have the greatest chance of surviving these pandemic times by finding ways of turning towards each other from a distance, by using the many technologies available to us as resources for community-building amid and against crisis. Technologies make connections possible, but we have to figure out how best to utilize them in support of a liberating, transformative practice of education. We must be cautious to ensure our reliance on technology actually helps us to achieve our goals and that we understand where and how it serves the interests of power by reinforcing structural inequities. Maintaining such an awareness requires honest, critical, ongoing dialogue between all members of the learning community. As educators, we must be more generous, flexible, and compassionate with ourselves and with our students, especially considering that the applications through which we communicate may be spaces of struggle and vulnerability. By doing this, we may discover that even when we are not meeting face-to-face with students, we still have the power to educate for a better world.

Some strategies for more effectively using technology:

  1. Resist the urge to use technology just because it is available. In my experience, simplicity and restraint support an online learning environment where technology does not get in the way of student learning and is less likely to reinforce inequities.
  2. Work with students and your institution to build access to virtual learning technologies, including to computers and the internet. Follow meaningful accessibility guidelines to make sure your content is legible for all kinds of learners.
  3. At the beginning of the term, ensure students have a space to share their names, pronouns, and access needs. Accept that these things may differ from “official” sources and that they may change across the term. Honor what students share with you.
  4. As much as possible, support students’ agency in their use of technology. For example, avoid making video necessary for participation on Zoom calls and assignments, offer multiple means of engagement online, and don’t expect students to log on at set times unless necessary.
  5. Research the data collection practices and ethical commitments of all the technologies you use. Make sure that your technology use aligns with your pedagogical vision and that students clearly understand what this information means for them.
  6. Gather feedback from students that helps you become more conscious of how your use of technology impacts their experiences and participation in the virtual learning space. Gather feedback often, and put it to use in the service of educational equity.
  7. Accept that everyone is exhausted and on the verge of a complete breakdown right now. Many of us are struggling to get from one day to the next. Your teaching will not be perfect right now, and that’s ok. Do what you can to get yourself and your students through these times with love and compassion.

Samuel Z. Shelton is a doctoral student of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Oregon State University. Their dissertation project aims to advance an intersectional feminist theorization of trauma that can inform and transform critical, social justice education. Their other research interests include: access(ibility); gender and technology; politics of care; and consent as liberatory practice. You can learn more about Sam by visiting their website, samsheltonswebsite.com.

Further Reading

[1] Marshall, Ty. “How Google Classroom Erases Trans Students.” Rethinking schools, published Summer 2020. https://rethinkingschools.org/articles/how-google-classroom-erases-trans-students/

[2] Magnet, Shoshana, Mason, Corinne L., and Trevenen, Kathryn. 2014. “Feminism, Pedagogy, and the Politics of Kindness.” Feminist Teacher 25(1):1-22.

[3] Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.

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