Well, here we are on what we hope is the brink of the end of the pandemic, and the impact of the last year has begun to emerge. Last week’s higher education news tells an interesting tale.
- First, there was the Zoom story. As campuses jumped into digital platforms, many opting for (fighting for) Zoom, no one understood that they had usage clauses that allowed them to refuse to support potentially controversial campus events. We worried about Zoom Bombing, but not about censorship of us. As Zoom addresses this part of their contract (see Zoom Addresses Academic Freedom Concerns in Inside Higher Ed) because they want to continue to work with higher education, I find myself wondering how we are thinking about technology and censorship overall.
- Second, Florida legislators have proposed legislation that allows students to record classes. They need permission to post their recordings, but the intention of this documentation is clear: The bill, which sailed through Florida’s House of Representatives and Senate, says that a student may record video or audio of class lectures not only for their own personal educational use but also “in connection with a complaint to the public institution of higher education where the recording was made, or as evidence in, or in preparation for, a criminal or civil proceeding.” (Lights, Camera, Teach)
Couple these with the countless instances of parent complaints that administrators and faculty have experienced over the last year because the parent happened to walk by and hear something they didn’t like when their student was “in” class, and it appears that these digital learning platforms are undermining the sacred spaces for learning we depend on in higher education.
Technologies are not just tools–they have power to fully re-define the organizations, communities, and cultures they inhabit. This is Media Ecology 101 (see Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman for primers). Leaping into these new environments without thinking them through can be a dangerous thing. The last year has been nothing but leaping in without the time to think things through. As we emerge from this pandemic and regroup about what universities will look like in the years to come, we must not neglect fundamental questions about the interaction between our technologies and our definitions of education.
Here are some things I’d like all of us to consider.
Exploration of controversial topics is a necessary component of higher education.
In K-12, we may introduce some of the tough things about our history, culture, and the nature of human existence, but we tread lightly because the students are young and potentially fragile. At universities we educate adults (beginner adults, perhaps, but adults nonetheless). As such, this is the time to stop mincing words and get to the heart of some of the most difficult conversations about “life, the universe, and everything” (thank you Douglas Adams). These conversations are a necessary part of education and we are all likely to be uncomfortable. Too bad. Controversial and/or ambiguous subjects are at the heart of learning, creating knowledge, and changing the world. Think Darwin, Wright, Arendt, de Beauvior.
Classrooms must be seen as sacred spaces.
As educators, we like to say “there are no stupid questions.” In reality, there are lots of stupid questions. These are questions that reveal we weren’t listening carefully, didn’t read the assignment, didn’t read the syllabus, etc. Nevertheless, we want our students to trust us enough to go ahead and ask. Questions are the path to clarification, understanding, and sometimes great conversations about where misunderstandings come from. Students must feel free to speak without being humiliated, and so we cultivate that openness to every question, not just the good ones, in all that we do. Being recorded asking these questions is just not fair.
At the same time, in the flow of an explanation, faculty are likely to make statements that they would then like to re-phrase or clarify. They may be exploring a novel idea that they are thinking through out loud, or they may simply stumble in describing something and then step back to rephrase. They may also take on a delicate topic and bravely work through difficult ideas in collaboration with their students. Those conversations frequently lead to words and phrases that can look controversial if taken out of the context of the whole. Allowing students to record these conversations will fundamentally undermine a conversational and exploratory (Socratic) approach to education. Under the threat of recordings, faculty will be forced to read from notes and PowerPoint slides without engaging in anything but short answer questions.
University students must be treated as adults.
This is not just about the family members listening in to their student’s classes and intervening inappropriately. Those violations of the walls of the classroom are a curious outgrowth of the pandemic when online learners have been surrounded by their families. Post-pandemic, online learners might find a room of their own once again. That is as it should be.
But even before the pandemic I was being courted by technology vendors who wanted to help me take attendance via students’ phones. This was posed a solution to the vagaries of faculty attendance taking, and as an opportunity to intervene if we notice that students are missing too many classes. While attendance is, indeed, the number one barrier to student success at my university, I roundly refused this technological intervention. I do not want the power to track our students’ every moves. They should be able to move freely, outside of our view, because they are adults. Adults are responsible for their own attendance. To make it our job is to re-enforce adolescent behaviors and worse, keep the motivation for education externally located. This is a terrible idea for higher education.
Post-Pandemic, higher education will continue to use technologies to create educational opportunities and experiences. That can be to the good. We should explore pedagogies, imaginatively blend learning environments, and expand access to education wherever possible. But make no mistake, adopting new technologies will change what we mean when we say higher education. As we adopt them we should not lose sight of the critical experiences that are central to learning as (young) adults. Those experiences will include conversations that are informative, imaginative, controversial, and uncomfortable. These conversations should not be sacrificed as we adopt new technologies.
It is imperative that universities continue to create environments designed to support the development of our students’ abilities to think independently and critically as they navigate difficult and confusing ideas. Universities provide an opportunity to hone those skills in a community devoted to drawing out ideas rather than shutting them down. Those conversations will not take place in a censored or surveilled environment. They can only happen if we continue to create sacred spaces for learning.