On pedagogical rations, we still seek to thrive.Posted: June 7, 2020
It has been a tough year. Australia was on fire at the start, then sabre rattling started, then COVID came, and now the US is in turmoil as black voices rise up to demand justice and fair and equitable treatment as citizens. (Black Lives Matter. If that bothers you, go read someone else, or, better yet, educate yourself as to why you should agree.)
The COVID crisis has had a large impact on the educational sector, affecting enrolments at many Australian institutions as we are (to varying degrees) dependent upon international students for income. But now, many of our international students are not coming, which means that every University in Australia is taking a hit. At the same time, the COVID issues that prevent students from entering the country have forced us into an unexpected and unprecedented level of remote and on-line teaching for every student. We have been in remote mode for months now.
Many far more respected voices than me have correctly identified that we cannot learn a great deal about remote learning from this change, because it was not planned, it has no “before” state that we captured for a control, and it is a scrabbling matter of survival. We have gone from the relatively ample sustenance of Universities in the 1960s and ’70s, to a more constrained budget as funding changed, and now we are on survival rations.
Our pedagogies are also rationed, limited by the physical space we can occupy, the technologies that we have, the staff who are available, and an overwhelming sense of dread that fills the spaces in June as many of us think “What next?”
Rationing reduces both the quantity and range of what we consume. From a food perspective, history tells us that limited sustenance is dangerous in two ways: firstly because slow starvation is still starvation, and secondly, that there is a minimum requirement for a balanced diet or humans can get very sick or even die with full bellies. The consumption of maize, a staple of Mesoamerica, can easily lead to pellagra and other deficiency diseases unless it is nixtamalized with lye or lime. Where maize went without this knowledge, outbreaks of deficiency disease followed. It’s not just cereals and vegetables that have this problem: rabbit meat is so low in fat that a diet exclusively on this meat can lead to protein poisoning and, if rabbit is your only meat source, common advice is not to make it a substantial part of your diet.
Back to our pedagogies, while we are forced to ration our approaches and our resources, we have to think about whether we are providing enough for a balanced and sufficient education, or are we slowly starving our students or, worse still, introducing educational deficiencies that will hamper their development in the future?
There will be weeks and months of analysis after this challenging year, and many assumptions will be challenged. We will see the impact of these remote terms and semesters on education, on knowledge, on community, and on identity. But that analysis is after things improve. Right now, our focus is on monitoring the health of our communities, looking for slow decline and deficiency as best we can, and improving things where we can.
How long do we stay on these rations? 2020 is a brewing storm of new things, each one pushing a previous event into the background. Every lightning bolt is brighter and closer than before, every thunder clap louder.
If this were a storm at sea, we would be desperately trying to ensure our ship was sound, that it could stay afloat, and we would look for signs of the storm breaking.
When a ship is in distress, often its weight is reduced to improve its chances of staying afloat. The things thrown off are known as “jetsam”, distinguished from those things that float away (either from waves or because the ship has foundered), which are “flotsam”. What have we thrown from our ships, or at least considered?
There are no more face-to-face lectures in many cases. These are replaced with recordings or on-line presentation and discussion. There are fewer tutorials, with fewer people, as the tyranny of the physical prevents us from filling rooms while we are under disease management social distancing restrictions. We do not exchange paper. We do not gather in laboratories. We do not sit in one place to undertake examinations under strict invigilation conditions.
The traditional lecture, with hundreds of students sitting in a room to receive the wisdom from the front, is jetsam. At my institution, there will be no face-to-face lectures until 2021. This is mostly because we will not be legally allowed to put students into many of the lecture theatres at densities and numbers that make it feasible. Existing laws would require us to have 10 times the lecture space – which is an impossible requirement, even if we had the lecturing staff available to multiply their effort by 10. But the presentation of information, interactively with the lecturer, is still going strong in the remote space and we have noticed that more students participate in Q&A than the few we used to see dominating the physical space. We have lost the “vitamin” of community that occurs through regular mingling but that may come from other sources.
Paper assignments, long dwindling, are jetsam but that is perhaps hastening an inevitable demise. In a time of growing part-time student numbers, students who work part-time, increasing transit times, requiring the physical transfer of cellulose fibres imprinted with marking reagent seems a little excessive unless absolutely necessary. It’s true that on-line and electronic systems are less flexible than paper and, especially for formulae, there is a steep learning curve for formatting tools to represent complex symbols. E-paper, in its various forms, is promising but still not there. The removal of paper is probably making things harder and stifling some students’ creativity.
The tutorials and the laboratories are coming back, under new regulations and new requirements. Their value, the authentic and hands-on nature of a good exercise in these spaces, saved them from the ocean. We know what is good about them but now have to make sure that we have placed that good at the forefront.
The invigilated paper examination is another case altogether. I have just finished working on a fully remote examination, open book, and presented across a network. Instead of having two pens and pencils, my students need a fully-charged battery and a good internet connection. But the move to open book (a first for this course) has meant a Bloomian shift up into application and evaluation as a minimum – a very positive direction that we had been making but was much more easily justified in this change. We have kept most of the exam but we have thrown out some of its old baggage.
I will be honest. I think that on-line examinations, already a busy area of research, are going to be an area of a great deal of future research, much of it looking back into this year as we desperately try to work out what worked and how it worked. For me, this rationing has been fascinating, as it forced me to think in detail about exactly what I wanted students to do, as their potential identities as graduates, as students, and as discipline specialists.
There is another nautical term, which you might not know, lagan, that refers to heavy goods thrown from a ship to reduce weight but marked with a buoy to be recovered later. When danger has passed, you circle back and get them again. While flotsam and jetsam are often legally passed to their discoverer, unless the former owner makes a claim, lagan is always yours and you will be back for it.
I do wonder how many of the things that we didn’t do, that went overboard, are considered to be so valuable that we circle back for them? As we come out of this, even while we’re circling back, it’s probably worth some moments in reflection to determine whether we really want that heavy thing back on board or we learned something new while we weathered the storm.
Stay safe, stay well.