Like most churches, most post-secondary institutions (like the university I teach at) suddenly shifted to online formats when we entered the pandemic. Nearly a year later, it seems that online teaching and preaching will not be changing soon. We are all coming to grips with the real possibility that the way we meet to communicate, to learn, or to worship, may never return to “normal.”
Like academia, the Church seems to be particularly anxious about changes to form that disrupt tradition. After all, the Church has frequently split over who should read and interpret sacred texts, as well as what form those texts should take. Form—from oral stories, to carving on stone, to scrolls of papyrus, to books of vellum and paper, to digital media—has also figured prominently in the controversies of both religious and academic institutions.
So, we should take it for granted that there is considerable anxiety about this rapid shift in form and what it will mean for higher education. Nevertheless, much of this worry seems misplaced. At Manitoba’s largest university (U of Manitoba), enrollment is up and more students than ever are able to balance work and school from home. For myself, working from home has meant more efficiency and, ironically, more opportunity to engage with students. I’m a Millennial who has spent my entire adult life in universities as both a student and instructor. Most of my long student life was lived out of a laptop bag, so working a foot away from where I sleep feels like slipping on a well-worn pair of Blundstones.
I realize that I sound like a typical entitled Millennial, romanticizing the gig economy as it permits me to work in trendy workspaces instead of boring offices. I also realize that this transition has been anything but comfortable for many who teach. I am grateful for the self-sacrificing educators who have the added demands of maintaining physical distance in their classrooms. And of course, instantly moving embodied courses to online learning has been a Herculean task, especially for those who have justifiably resisted “blended learning,” which combines online and in-person teaching formats.
But for myself, as with most colleagues I’ve talked to who were born after 1980, teaching from home seems like the long awaited fulfilment of the prophesied digital revolution. Not only does it seem inevitable, but it seems to validate our experiences of living so much of our lives online.
Many students also seemed unphased by the transition. I had one student last year who had been late to every class, until we moved online. The shift in form inspired a complete turnaround; she was the first to login. When we finished class in record time (thanks to the pre-recorded lecture), the response was something along the lines of: “wait, we’re done? And I’ve been dragging myself out of bed on a Saturday for a 9 a.m. class all year?”
While many young people are as comfortable learning online as they are in-person, some have grown to prefer it. These, often introverted, people are able to overcome social anxiety when they have control over who sees them and how they choose to participate. Basically, students can text instead of speaking. They can easily share videos and images with their class-mates. They can respond to questions and topics of conversation even when the “synchronous” class-time has ended. From my perspective, this has been a major move toward equity for many who had previously been labelled shy or anyone who might face bias—unconscious or otherwise—based on appearance.
In other good news, there are a number of benefits to teaching writing online. It’s easier to demonstrate library research or highlight specific elements of a text when sharing a screen instead of a classroom. Most helpfully, online forums and chat features allow us to move our oral discussions about how to become better writers into written discussions. Without really noticing, the students I teach are doing more writing than ever, and they are benefitting from this additional practice.
Still, moving online has been as challenging for some as it has been beneficial to others. Procrastination is easier than ever when we lose the anchoring effect of more rigid class schedules. Extroverts, who have enjoyed privileged positions in our society for some time, have to quickly adapt to a format that predominantly privileges introverts. Most importantly, there are few easy remedies when technical glitches interrupt classes. And while it is true that this shift can allow for more interpersonal equity, equity is under attack when some students have intermittent internet connections or are trying to participate on their phones instead of a computer.
Change is not easy and it is important to approach it with healthy skepticism. Plato famously refused to write because of concerns about writing’s ill effects on memory. Countless academics and religious leaders worried about their positions once the printing press brought literacy to the masses. In 1988, writer Wendell Berry justified his refusal to buy a computer because it would jeopardize his writing process.
It is good to consider the complex implications that this sudden digital shift is having on how we learn. But we’ve safely traveled this uncertain path many times before.
What is perhaps more worrying for young people in post-secondary programs or trying to find a place in the working world, is that school and many forms of work are no longer places. These have become more seamlessly integrated into our daily lives, and as feminists point out, domestic labour is shamefully undervalued. As we come to terms with the benefits and challenges to our daily lives that online work and school have produced, a new, greater challenge comes into focus. If education and work are becoming ever more efficient and entangled with our daily lives, will society learn to value these more domestic, entangled forms of labour? How will the many institutions that have been so securely tied to being a place adapt when the urgency of the pandemic subsides?
Michael Minor teaches writing skills as part of the Inner City Social Work Program. His first book of poetry, Learning to Love a River, is published by Signature Editions. He, his partner Steph, and their two children are grateful to live in Treaty 1 territory.