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Covid-19 and online teaching: mind the slope

Date:23 March 2020
Author:Andrea Sangiacomo
Bergamo (It), Military trucks transport Coronavirus victims' coffins
Bergamo (It), Military trucks transport Coronavirus victims' coffins

With Covid-19 becoming a world pandemic, most countries started to close schools and universities in the attempt of slowing down the speed of contagion. In Europe, Italy was the first in adopting this measure and now other countries are following—quickly. On Friday 20th March, for instance, the University of Groningen announced that all physical teaching and exams will be suspended until September 2020. Simultaneously with the closing down of university buildings, lecturers are encouraged to move their courses and activities online as much as possible. It is becoming increasingly clear that this won’t be an emergency measure for just a few weeks, but it will affect at least the whole of the remaining academic year (who knows about the next). 

Disclaimer: in emergency situations like this, it is clear that there is not much time to prepare and rather it is needed to act on the spot and improvise a bit. This is understandable. However, it is also important not to get fully absorbed into the whirlpool of ‘I got to do something’ and forget about some important pitfalls that must be kept well in sight. In this post, I’d like to do an exercise in making explicit (and thus help remembering) what should be the obvious:

online teaching cannot be a replacement or surrogate for in-person teaching.

Online teaching is neither bad nor unhelpful by itself. Online teaching is just a different thing from in-person teaching and this difference must be explicitly asserted, reinforced and remembered, as long as the emergency lasts. Why? Because forgetting it entails at least three major problems.

1) Forgetting about the difference. If everybody is able to teach online, if everybody ends up getting used to it (assuming this will last long enough), if the whole educational system can run based on recorded videos, web streaming, blogs, take home exams etc., why did we need all that complex and expensive apparatus we were used to before? Why did we need to have in-person meetings almost every day of the week, spend so many hours together in front of someone who could pretty much do the same using web tools? Can’t the relevant information be communicated in the same way?

 If one starts thinking along these lines without realizing the problem in this way of thinking, university (as we know and practice it) is done. One major assumption here is that teaching is about transmitting information from a provider (the teacher) to a consumer (the student). This transfer of information might be one component of teaching, sure, but this is not what teaching is about. Teaching is also very much about understanding who’s in front of you, what is the need there, how can you provide the right stimuli and conditions for the one in front of you so that they can find out as autonomously as possible the best way to grow, develop and flourish. Teaching is very much like gardening: seeds and plants know how to grow, but they need support, nutriment and right conditions. The goal is not to get to the fruit and start the process again. The goal is to go through the process together and learn from it. If one doesn’t see this point (teaching is more than transfer of relevant information), then we got a very serious problem, perhaps more serious on the long term than the covid-19 pandemic.   

Hence, we should not forget the fact that online teaching cannot be a replacement or a surrogate of in-person teaching, simply because it does not allow to establish that direct personal relationship between human beings sharing the same space at the same time, being physically in front of one another, that online media can imitate but cannot ever replace.

Yes, online teaching is the only thing we got at this point in order to keep education going. We’re lucky to have it. However, this does not detract from the need for self-transparency with which it is vital to remind to whoever ‘moves teaching online’ and to the students who will ‘attend’ to it that what’s happening from now on is no longer ‘the same thing in a different way’, but a different thing altogether (which hopefully will bring about some good result, comparable or not inconsistent with the reasons and goals because of which students enrolled in their courses). Can you hear the difference?

2) Forgetting about the context. If the whole university system happens to run quite smoothly online, if in the end we end up enjoying this (and this might even happen, who knows?), another risk is forgetting why everything is moving online. Reminder: we’re amidst a world pandemic that so far killed almost 15.000 people worldwide (as for today, Monday 23rd March 2020). This is the context within which our online teaching is happening. Remembering this context is important in order not to loose perspective on the meaning of the events, including online teaching. Yes, education needs to keep going, not everything can now become explicitly about the pandemic. And yet, this pandemic is now the broader context within which people are teaching and learning about any subject. We’re teaching online because students (and everybody else) must remain home, trying to limit as much as possible social contacts, practicing social distancing and trying to slow down the spreading of the virus.

 There are pragmatic and existential downsides in forgetting about this context. From a pragmatic point of view, if one looses this context one might forget why staying home and avoid socializing is so vital for everybody at this time. Online teaching becomes just another way of getting distracted, trying to find something in which one can become absorbed, in order not to think to what is happening (about the absorption syndrome see here). But in situations of emergency like this (which will likely endure for some time), trying not to think is precisely the worse one could do. We need all our thinking capacity at this point in order to face whatever will happen.

 From an existential point of view, the context of one’s situation is what determines the overall background meaning of one’s experience. You can do the exact same thing but it will inevitably be different in different contexts. Brushing your teeth before a date or the morning of a funeral is exactly the same activity, but it is felt and experienced in very different ways. This meaning is what one needs to keep exploring and investigating. Otherwise, what’s the point of all of this?

 For instance, being still healthy amidst a world pandemic one might understand that actually everybody is liable to get sick and there is relatively little one can do about that. Yes, one might escape covid-19 (perhaps), but human history doesn’t seem to record the case of any human being who did not get sick at some point in life. We’re all together in being liable to sickness, irrespectively of whether at this very moment we’re sick or not. Hence, there is no reason to either egoistically try to over-protect oneself (I must get as much as possible, who cares for the others), nor panic about that, or pretend that we’re above it all (I’ll keep doing my things, I’ll keep getting out, do whatever I want, I’m healthy, it won’t affect me). Actually, what’s happening with covid-19 is nothing really new, we just forgot that sickness is one of the broader context of human life. The virus is reminding us something we tried to distract ourselves from. We’re all together in this. If you think about it, this is quite encouraging, since it cuts at the root any reason for conceit and (amidst social distancing) brings everybody together.

 3) Forget about the media. In times when people are severely restricted in their social life, it is likely that they’ll seek some compensation in social media and the internet. Online teaching will then increase the time one will spend online, on top of the tendency (encouraged by the circumstances) to already spend more time there. The internet, by itself, is just a medium. And yet, life on the social media has by itself its own problems (I wrote about some of them here).

In a situation like the one we’re experiencing, the internet can easily become a powerful provider for distraction. Distraction, by itself, is not problematic. Distraction just reveals the way in which attention works. Since attention is limited, it naturally tends to jump from content to content. Distraction becomes a problem when one starts to systematically resort to it in order to cover up anxiety, fear, or simply trying to manage the discomfort for the conditions in which one finds oneself. Then, being distracted by the contents, one forgets about the different way in which those contents appear and are experienced through an indirect medium like the internet (in which there is no person-to-person direct relationship, but this relationship is mediated through words, images and screens, which pretend to provide surrogates for in-person contacts), and how this affects the meaning of that content.

The same content, in a different container, is no longer the same phenomenon. This does not necessarily entail that one way is better than the other. The point is not loosing sight (not forgetting) how the medium we use affects, shapes and determines the meaning of the content that we receive through that medium.

The three problems I listed are, in themselves, quite easy to address. All they take is just not forgetting about them. This does not mean that one has to proactively think about them all the time, it is enough just not loose sight of them, keep them on the background of one’s conscious experience. Just stating, explicitly, from time to time, where the difference is, makes sure that everybody is informed and does not loose track of it, understands it, doesn’t slip into heedlessness.

 Minding these problems can be philosophically quite enriching. By taking these potential shortcomings into account, we might be forced by this situation to better reflect on what does it mean to teach, how does the context in which we live affects our way of experiencing our actions and lives, and how the media we use determine our experience of the content we engage with. If by the end of this emergency we’ll have made any progress in any of these reflections, all the time spent home won’t have been wasted at all and even covid-19 might have taught us something very valuable, even remaining offline.

 Be heedful, stay home, meditate.

About the author

Andrea Sangiacomo


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