The Epistle of Q — Chapter 116 (b)

oh no… hear we go again…I promised you a second part to my concerns about Covid-19 and here it is…

The world of panicking about the panic has firmly taken hold now. We are hearing that universities may well continue in lockdown well into the autumn. The plan is to continue on-line learning. And so I’d like to jump in with some advice to post-secondary students, especially those early in their learning journey. Take the year off. Boycott the institutions. Get a job, even a menial one. Consider helping clean hospitals or taxi cabs. Anything!! But don’t think you are going to get a full education on-line. Oh yes there are some courses that will be okay – courses that have boring lecturers won’t be much more boring on-line. Courses that rigidly follow the text book may even be a bit better because you can always quickly catch up if you miss a lecture or two. And courses that have lots of pictures will give you time to download, print them, and turn them into wall posters for your bedroom.

But as for learning, the research is already starting to come in, and on-line teaching is no where near the solution to engaged, meaningful learning. Unless, of course, we want the next generation of leaders to resemble automatons.

My primary focus these days is teaching applied ethics. The emphasis here is on the word applied. I expect my students to learn to resolve moral dilemmas, to reason through cases of ethical conflicts and collectively come to a better solution. My students by and large are going out to manage aspects of our human existence – environmental health officers, organizational leaders, business executives, government managers. These all will require the ability not simply to work with people but to collaborate in collective efforts to get to better. And no matter how much my esteemed colleagues who are experts in high tech try to convince me that I can replicate my live and in-person face-to-face pedagogy in an on-line setting, I can’t.

Firstly, the technologies, as good as they are, don’t function consistently. And few universities have the capability of delivering a quality that is parallel to that viewed on the evening news panels where there are several excellent technicians involved including great camera operators. Moreover, students do not all possess the same quality of computing equipment which not only impacts how they receive transmissions, but also significantly influences the quality of their own participative inputs with their instructor and more importantly with their peers.

Secondly, on-line learning does not facilitate informal chatter – like the times I assign students to a small group or team and invite them to go out onto the campus lawn to figure out a problem and in doing so get into some sidebar conversations that help them learn more about each other. Nor does it allow me to randomly talk to students at the front or rear of the room during a coffee break when someone asks about a movie they’ve just seen and they wonder about the relevance to their learning of some ethical crisis. And there is definitely no opportunity for casual conversation on the way to the pop machines or even washroom.

Thirdly, there is no real sense of community. An institution I am passionate about and have been providing services to now for twenty years recently had an orientation session to kick off the spring/summer session. We used Google Meets. I understand it is a good system, comparable to most that are out there. When we finished the orientation I was shaken. My only reaction was – if this is the system I will be using, my students are doomed. While I was complimented on the course that I teach, my thought was – these students aren’t going to get to experience that course at all. Not only am I having to drastically re-design it to fit the new format, I am not going to be able to provide the students with half the moments that normally occur that make it all so special (and they have always said so in their course reviews). The video was inconsistent, the audio didn’t always match the speaker, some graphics worked while others didn’t, and in the end I learned next to nothing about the students, and only snippets about the institution and some of its key leaders.

And it got me thinking. With all this lockdown and isolationism, what really are we protecting our students from? If we must wait until a vaccine is available, might it not be prudent to wait then until we know it works? And then, what happens when the next virus appears? And one will, trust me, just think of what with have had to deal with since the turn of this millennium: SARS, H1N1, resurgence of measles, continuing spread of TB, not to mention the rise of the super bug in hospitals themselves. Unfortunately we have now become a people that panic at the mere thought of panic.

In the last twelve hours I have read a paper from entitled Are we at a transformative moment for online learning? (note: the authors are as pessimistic, or perhaps even as fearful as I!) And watched Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans (free on YouTube)! While I’m sure there are a couple of errors or misquotes in both (just like there are in any document or documentary – no matter the subject), I began to ponder as I took an early morning bike ride into the mountains,  should I write to those students who have an option of delaying my course for one year, and recommend that they do that, in the hope that by then they will be able to take the course in the way that it is most effectively designed. I want to get to know my students as real, functioning, collaborating people – and I’d like them to meet me in the same way. How do I do that when our system is now doing everything it can to protect them from that in an effort to protect them from Covid-19? I fear that we won’t know for a long time if we have been successful in the latter; more critically I fear we may already becoming successful at the former.

Are we on the verge of becoming a mediocre humanity? Unable to meet as social beings, unwilling to risk learning as social beings, and unlikely soon to care about being social beings!