two kittens with dog

Image attribution: DaiRut

Sundi Richard and Autumm Caines

Can we talk about a new modality?

There are a lot of terms being used right now as almost all institutions of higher education and many public schools close or stop their in person classes across the globe. The terms were contested and defined for specific contexts before Covid-19, but there was some common understanding of the different parameters around terms like online learning, hybrid learning, blended learning, web enhanced learning. Time was a big delineator – time is a great line: seat time, direct instruction, and the like, descriptions of experiences like synchronous and asynchronous also played into these common definitions.

Now we have new terms like “Emergency Remote Online Learning” and “Continuity of Instruction”. Some educators have pointed out that this is in fact NOT online learning, as some are trying to use this as an opportunity for research around “online learning”. What is happening is something different, and to conflate it with the online learning that we have been talking about up until this point can actually be dangerous. We’d like to embrace this idea that is being expressed by many educators and propose that we recognize it as a new modality. 

Thinking of this way of teaching and learning at a distance during a worldwide crisis as a new modality will be helpful to us as we move into it, do it, and plan for what happens next. In most cases, classes were designed and planned as face to face, and carried out that way for varying periods of time. This recent move to online was fast and came with worries not only of access and equity, but of varying fears about a world-wide pandemic and the call to stay at home and practice physical social distancing. In many cases, class social contracts and community practices had already been formed and practiced, and they then moved to a different space or spaces.

How can we use what we have learned about “online learning” and “distance learning” thus far? How can we use our current situation in a new modality to help inform what we do now, next, and possibly even make our educational systems better? We’ll start with how we see care in education.

What does care look like right now?

We have been preparing for a conference presentation for #OER20 (which will now be 100% online due to COVID) and a #DigCiz call around what we are calling the Weaponization of Care. The conference theme is Care and the responses have been amazingly and deeply thought out intentional reflections on care in online and open learning. Our proposal was to explore what we are calling Weaponization of Care around surveillance edtech and how care is often used as the reason behind unethical tech and institutional practices that negatively affect students. We took the chance of being the Debbie Downers who would challenge the conference theme, but we had no idea that this concept would manifest right in front of us prior to the conference via the COVID-19 response.

We’d like to start this by saying that we’ve seen a lot of care in the past few weeks. Care for students, recognizing they need time to adjust and that we must listen and take notice not just of their academic lives, but the other parts of their lives that affect their mental and physical state. Realizing that students are home using a single home internet connection with the rest of their family who are also all trying to use the connection at the same time and the whole house is taxed. Care for faculty members, who have varying levels of comfort / literacy with technology, and who have other things happening in their lives that make their job more complex at the moment. Care for staff, those who are helping to prepare faculty and students, and those who make residential and in-person campuses possible: student life, health center, dining services, custodial services, campus security, who have other worries and cares that affect their well-being at the moment. 

Writing this all down, reminds us that these things should actually matter all the time, and are reflected in various pedagogies of care and inclusion. Our current circumstances call out the importance of this care, the idea that wellbeing and care should be at the forefront of education, and the understanding that attendance may not be as important as various opportunities for students to access and interact with course content and classmates. 

Weaponization of Care

Even if you are not in education, you have received messages from your gas company, your bank, your dentist, local restaurants, about how they are reacting to the pandemic and how they are either asking you for help or letting you know what they are trying to do to mitigate the precarious situation this has put so many in. Often these messages of care are authentic and genuine, but we need to be aware that not all will be in our best interests. 

As edtech professionals, we have seen many announcements come out from vendors, all with the lens of care during covid-19. It is naive to think that everyone is just trying to do their part. This is where our experience before this new modality comes in handy. If you’ve ever worked in edtech and been responsible for a large scale tech adoption or acquisition you know the impact it has. It does not just provide a nice product for people to use; it draws lines of access and limitation. 

These lines of access and limitation create a complex network of effects on differing populations and cause inequity. We are in need of great care at this moment in history, maybe a more widespread and essential need for care than most of us have ever lived through, but we did not enter this moment on equal footing. Some of us are simply more prepared for this moment than others. We need care to confront inequity especially in this crisis. Not all will be approaching giving care with the same reasons. Some will offer care because they see a perfect opportunity to grow their product, rather than because they want to challenge those lines of access and limitation.   

It matters what that vendor did before this crisis. It matters what might happen after this crisis. Who will be relying upon whom when we are no longer in crisis? What care and support, outside of  wanting you to sign a contract after the crisis, are they offering? Are they asking you to create unneeded complexity in your technology ecosystem? Have you never used their product? Is the problem that they are assuming you are having a “general” problem an institution might be having during these common circumstances? Are they telling you that more students and faculty have been using their product lately. Critical instructional designers and edtech professionals have seen these practices, and have a sense of the ethical landscape of edtech vendors. Please trust them right now as we work in a new modality. Continue to trust your instincts for what students, faculty, and staff need right now. Be in touch with what you need right now.