On pedagogical rations, we still seek to thrive.

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.

2 Comments on “On pedagogical rations, we still seek to thrive.”

  1. lizphillips says:


    This really needs wide distribution outside your blog.

    I love how you wrapped the trauma that education is suffering around the expanse of the ocean. Flotsam and jetsam. What they were before anyone stopped to think about survival and what they are now will be something to ponder. Here, we have summer to regroup and prepare. I totally forgot you are smack in the middle. My school system is in the eye of the storm. When they tossed me off the boat, they found two replacements, who will be okay with what’s still seaworthy. It is only now hitting the commanders that they tossed me out too soon. I’ve already found myself in the middle of hot debate. Do we use her online as a resource or do we cut our losses and fake it? You cannot fake expertise, but parents are so traumatized they might not motive the teaching gap.

    This whole thing has captured my attention. Such an interesting puzzle. One I would give pretty much anything to get in on troubleshooting. There is plenty of room for free-thinking creators, places scripted shallow instructors cannot begin to understand. The superficial dressing being stripped away to expose bare bones grit so delivery of knowledge and permission for student innovation blooms. We were going to roll out projects-based learning with a strong budget. Now we are going to SCHOOLOGY platforms and using the PBL budget to pay for it. Why? Because we have too many teachers who don’t have deep knowledge of their content areas; we bought into Pearson’s textbook and testing system to standardize instruction; we have leadership that is still following the assembly line model for education–even though more and more kids arrive already subpar or absolutely broken.

    Our entire nation demands equity in life for all people with exception of two groups. The super rich and powerful who profit more from oppressing than they do from enabling the success of those with less. The population who graduated from the assembly line believing they could have the American Dream handed to them as entitlement of citizenship. I think of them as farm animals raised by the farmer who lied to them about their purpose in life, loaded them up for the slaughterhouse, and got a check as a reward for looking the other way.

    I shouldn’t care about what happens to the school system that tossed me. Even if they are sorry and come back for me, I’m not sure I would leave my lifeboat just to be tossed again–when Normal is established. All my expertise is in the boat with me. Whether I expire on a desert island in my old age or on the lifeboat looking for a place to land, doesn’t matter. What I know about teaching in person and online (because I love both) is in essence already dead in the water. Doldrums.

    I need something to occupy my mind. The cat knows three words, and I’ve only been off the mother ship since March. The dogs refuse to read silently and allow me to read to them. As people get back to their lives, I will still be in my little boat. I have accepted the assertion that I may never set foot in a physical school classroom, but there are other avenues if another ship comes looking for another man’s flotsam.

    I hope that you and others at your university will watch for treasures that other institutions have tossed. Pull from others’ dumped resources and welcome them to new opportunities. Bring their little lifeboat aboard, too, in case they see their ultimate destination, that dreamy island paradise opportunity that comes once in a lifetime. Who know, you might want to go there with them. As long as you and Kat and the cats agree.

    I’ve been hitting all the Leslie Fisher webinars lately. All free this summer. I am impressed with Microsoft and seriously thinking I want to design a digital destination for classrooms who read my novels. Maybe Microsoft would sponsor me and give 365 for free. Living in my remote houseboat gave me that idea because it will make life easier for overwhelmed teachers and parents. Anyway, on these a Friday night webinars with Leslie, there are teachers from Adelaide in the chats. It closes the miles. I have to wonder how many of them know you or Kat. When I think you you two in this storm, I know you are going to be leading the search and rescue phase. People have to look up from the gutter to see the stars, and they will if they aren’t already. I feel positive because you two and those you value are going to enable the cleanup. And yes, the commanders will sit on toilets and read the news on their phones, but that is the way of it all. We have enough to do, so let God flush them down the toilet.

    I don’t know what I’m doing sending this crap to you as a response. I think it is because you noticed me in the water and gave me good rations. Come back if you need me to help in any way. In the meantime, I’m looking for an island with wifi so I can write books and create new avenues for everybody in the freestyle virtual classroom of Education Afterlife.

    Love you. Love you for writing this blog, which by the way, is written far better than those other ones you had in mind when you wrote.

    Liz Phillips Sent from my cellphone


    • nickfalkner says:

      Thank you, Liz! This is probably bigger than every other response I’ve had put together! You make a great point about looking for what else is in the water – we may find lessons from other people that are useful for us!


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