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How Remote Learning Subverts Power and Privilege in Higher Education

[The Library of Trinity College Dublin. Photo by PhotoFra.]

Decolonize my syllabus, decolonize my curriculum, decolonize my classroom—for some time now, the term “decolonization” has been the buzzword around campus, as students and certain faculty demand inclusion and diversity in education. However, it seems that the pandemic has unleashed a natural decolonization process by directly challenging the exclusionary nature of the global university.

After three semesters of remote instruction, and as many of us prepare to return to in-person teaching, I can’t help but think of the Buddhist saying: Buddha sat under a tree but they put him in a temple. Considering sprawling campuses with their impressive but deserted buildings, I find myself reflecting on how the accessibility of blended learning has contested the authority of these spaces, which so often are homogenous places, gatekeepers of class and privilege.

Right now is a key moment in making higher ed institutions more inclusive through technology that broadens accessibility and encourages innovative pedagogies. As many prestigious universities that had previously looked down on the idea of digital learning put their content online, the entire dynamic of inclusion has shifted. No longer is travel or student visa status a barrier, English as a second language a challenge, nor the “right” appearance, class or race a deterrent to participation. The lone student of color, the single mother juggling child care, the disabled or depressed student no longer needs to shrink or stand out in the classroom. The power hierarchies of what is education and who gets to have it have been eroded.

The power hierarchies of what is education and who gets to have it have been eroded.

It is important to use the lessons of this transition to challenge what Paulo Freire calls “the banking system” of education—where professors aim to simply deposit knowledge into students—and instead create inclusive pedagogies that acknowledge the diversity of our students and provide a safe space that invites them to speak up. Decolonization is not just about removing a few dead white men from our syllabi, or adding more women of color. It’s about making sure that everyone’s experience is represented. It’s about decentering the traditional power hierarchy in the classroom, so that the professor is not the sole transmitter of knowledge who imposes a singular (and often Western) view. It’s about ensuring equitable participation among students, so that they don’t remain silent and passive receivers whose varied life experiences are dismissed.

The argument here is not to abandon the physical classroom, nor am I advocating that remote instruction is the answer to educational equity. The idea is to learn from this experience as we prepare to return to life beyond the pandemic. If we pay attention, there are insights here that can guide us to radical pedagogical intervention.

How the Virtual Classroom Shifts Power and Boosts Participation

Remote learning has been a great tool for such decentering strategies, as it does away with some of the problems of margins. In a Zoom classroom, the teacher is no longer the central authority. Chat offers real-time parallel participation. The ability to enter and exit at will equalizes power.

Before the pandemic, like many of my peers, I had been a great believer of the lecture hall, with its sense of tradition and history. However, it wasn’t until I started lecturing online, and noticed the flow of real-time comments via chat, that I realized how inclusive it could be. Instead of the static talk-down with “any questions?” at the end, I was able to modify my lecture according to the comments flowing in. The parallel participation forums provided students space for an alternate class discussion, initiating debate and critical thought without the teacher guiding the discourse as would happen in a traditional classroom. Turned-off cameras and private messaging provided an anonymity that took away the self-consciousness of raising your hand and speaking up. In that sense, remote learning decentralized the power hierarchy of the lectern and podium and increased student participation. And now it’s up to us to evolve our teaching instruction so that this immersive and interactive experience continues when we reenter the physical classroom.

Remote learning also improved accessibility for some students. During the pandemic, many universities recorded lectures, which meant that students could engage with the subject matter at their own pace and post their questions and comments accordingly. This proved especially helpful for those less able to attend in person or those struggling with the language of instruction. Last year in June, Bethan Moss, an editor of Cambridge University’s student newspaper, argued that recorded lectures should have been taken seriously as an option long before the pandemic. Moss pointed out the endemic ableism at institutions like Cambridge, where students who had struggled with access issues had gone unheard in the view of tradition. Articles such as these have forced educational practitioners and university boards to consider incorporating new technologies and techniques as a measure of inclusion rather than only as an emergency response. This move toward accessibility has initiated a different kind of decolonization, one that challenges the power of control, the pace of the professor, even the barriers of language.

How can we make sure that we continue to incorporate these shifts into our practice and policy as we head back to face-to-face teaching? The idea is not to propose one medium over the other, but to take the best of both in terms of a truly inclusive and diverse student experience.

Why did it take a pandemic for us to realize that education is just as much about self-knowledge as it is about the subject you are studying?

Yes, Zoom fatigue is real, and the absence of body language means the entire burden of teaching and learning falls on the eyes. So in order to minimize the visual overload, in my classes, we tried reading texts with our bodies. Instead of only focusing on cerebral engagement, I experimented with what is known as embodied learning, where participants try to tap into how a particular text makes them feel physically. Does it make them tense, does it loosen their muscles? This resulted in a kind of wholesome engagement I hadn’t seen before. Similarly, to keep students engaged despite the monotony of screens, we tried a quick meditation half way through the seminar to center ourselves. We tried free-writing and journaling as ways to informally check in with ourselves at midway points through online class. Initially this was a way to avoid online distractions, but gradually it became the most instructive way for students to engage with the text. As we experimented with more ways to make learning a wholesome experience, I found myself wondering, why did it take a pandemic for us to realize that education is just as much about self-knowledge as it is about the subject you are studying?

Overcoming Skepticism, Embracing Experimentation

In addition to teaching, scholarship has also experienced a power shift during the pandemic. Restrictions on field research and access to archives prompted many international institutes and researchers to rely on local scholars, community knowledge, oral histories, indigenous knowledge and auto-ethnography, which was a big step toward authenticity and better representation. For some time now, there have been calls to make the humanities and social sciences more inclusive of scholars from underrepresented communities and nations, especially in disciplines like anthropology and sociology, where questions are being raised about the power dynamics surrounding “who gets to study whom.” The health crisis helped to break down resistance to indigenous knowledge-production, which challenges imperial methodologies about quantitative and qualitative research. This is the kind of opening up that we need to keep in mind when we demand decolonization in academia, and it is this organic initiation of the process that we should take back with us into the classroom and the research lab and the library.

Why, then, are we still skeptical about hybrid models? Even before the pandemic, many educators knew that the traditional methods of teaching and research would have to be overhauled at some point. As a professor of humanities, I had been aware of the need to employ hybrid pedagogies more in tune with the digital age and shortened, over-stimulated attention spans. Advantages to joining students in their digital space far outweigh dated arguments railing against the medium; if anything, the pandemic’s isolating effects already prompted students to seek refuge there.

And despite the condescending attitude that online teaching is not as rigorous for the instructor, it is actually twice as hard. It requires a lot of ingenuity and innovation to engage students, who appear as blank boxes, into meaningful discussions. Online, we fight for our students’ attention, jostling for space alongside Netflix and Twitter only a click away. It’s challenging co-existing in learning spaces constantly threatened by more-entertaining apps. And it has taken a pandemic to realize that instead of competing with these spaces, we as educators have to be complementary. We have to go the distance to be equally engaging in the classroom.

We should be looking at radical pedagogical interventions that make the most of remote learning.

At this moment, the modern university stands at a turning point. Instead of wanting to go back to how things were, we should be looking at radical pedagogical interventions that make the most of remote learning as an accompaniment to the traditional classroom experience. This is the time to put “interdisciplinary” ideas into practice by experimenting with new methodologies. This is the time to let go of the resistance to new and innovative ways of knowledge production. This is the time to encourage student-led creative experimentation, community participation, oral histories, indigenous knowledge and auto-ethnography as viable means of educational engagement, instead of holding onto imperialistic and exclusionary practices in the name of tradition.

Despite the hardships, the pandemic has taught us that there is more than one way to decolonize education. It would be a shame to ignore these lessons of decentralization and inclusion, especially as we find ourselves reimagining the future of higher ed for reasons beyond the immediate crisis, such as the wave of student protests over college fees and the fast pace of technological development. Contrary to faculty fears of being replaced by recordings and the “Netflixisation of academia,” this is an exciting time to be in higher ed. Creativity is the key to the survival of the modern university, and as teachers, we have to create pedagogies that adapt to the post-COVID world. A larger view of education can emerge if we allow this to be a transformative process. Let’s embrace these lessons to move away from a capitalistic view of higher education as means to an end and toward an inclusive and diverse learning experience, which is an end in itself. That is what decolonization is really about.

This content was originally published here.

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