teacher or tech support?

This post is part of a series on bringing a human touch to online education. See the series introduction here.

I try to keep abreast of ideas in my field by reading scholarly journals. Often, it’s a difficult slog to get through the articles, both because I’m not familiar with the concepts of all the many subfields of the very broad discipline of language and literature and because academics are not always the best at writing clear prose (and I’m pointing at myself here too). But occasionally, I get to spend a few hours of sheer intellectual pleasure as I’m doing my professional development reading, and yesterday I had one of those times.

I sat down with the latest Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture, a special issue on how the pandemic has changed how we teach English. I was drawn to several articles (which I’ll cite at the end of this post) about teaching online, since that’s currently the only modality in which I teach. Although these articles were written by faculty who had to rapidly shift to online teaching due to the pandemic, whereas I teach for programs that were developed to be online and that have existed since long before spring 2020, I assumed I would find some relevance in them, and I wasn’t disappointed. Though they were written independently of each other (albeit responding to the same special issue prompt), the three articles formed a conversation about the deeper philosophical issues of online education, such as how it is subtly shifting the definition of learning to something that can be measured by metrics like frequency of log-ins and number of discussion posts. All of the authors readily acknowledged the benefits and possibilities of online education, but all of them pointed to trends and assumptions that could be pernicious if unquestioned and offered ways to push back against them.

One of the moments in my reading when I found myself agreeing aloud was in Mark Brenden’s article on learning management systems (LMS)–websites like Blackboard and Canvas where students and faculty conduct the business of online courses. Something Brenden said struck me so profoundly that I want to quote it at length here:

[the LMS] directs students’ interactions to mostly take place with the LMS itself, rather than with their peers or their instructor. Learning is presented as a digital maze–at the end of which apparently lies knowledge-in-waiting–that students must navigate. The teacher often functions more as a technician, or customer-service agent, who gets contacted if something goes awry with the students’ interaction with the LMS.

In other words, one of the most meaningful aspects of the college adventure–the encounter with other humans–is sidelined into an option to be avoided except when necessary. I mean no disrespect to people who work in tech support positions (their role is different, not less valuable) when I say that as a professor, I hope my relationship with students is deeper, longer-lasting, and less one-sided than a quick phone call or text chat with a troubleshooter.

We can get information from a website, but we can only get transformative, life-defining conversations (whether real-time or asynchronous) from real people. I believe we can get those in an online education setting, but this requires professors who are willing to be authentic and available. And that’s what this blog post series is about.

Back to more practical tips next time! Here are the articles I mentioned. All are from Pedagogy vol. 23, no. 2:

Bezio, Kelly L. “How to Subvert the Banking Concept of Education in Neoliberal Times.” pp. 263-274.

Brenden, Mark. “Learning and Management during and after the Pandemic: Reading Student Resistance to LMS.” pp. 297-310

Tidwell, Christy. “In Defense of Facelessness: Not In-Person but Not Impersonal.” pp. 321-332.