The reciprocal relationship between pedagogical practices and the environments in which teachers and students implement them is often lost in conversations about the future of higher education. Educators are likely to be more concerned with their practices — the instructional strategies, assignments and activities, and grading that keep them connected to their students on a day-to-day basis — than the details of their physical classrooms. When teachers find themselves confronted, abruptly, with the concerns of learning online (concerns like having to navigate new learning spaces, fearing a lack of technical proficiency, and anxieties over losing control) environment gets read as a barrier rather than an opportunity. Focusing on continuities of practice rather than disruptions in platform can ease the anxiety many faculty feel when confronted with the possibility of migration to and adoption of online learning.
This is a compelling logic, and it is the approach taken by Robert Ubell in a recent essay for Inside Higher Ed, “Why Faculty Still Don’t Want to Teach Online,” published December 13th, 2016. Ubell recognizes, importantly, that “the battle should not be fought between brick-and-mortar and new digital space but between old and new ways of teaching — those that encourage more interaction among students and instructors.” For Ubell, the critical task is developing student-centered pedagogy and a greater degree of meaningful contact between student and faculty. One would be hard pressed to find an educator today who would dispute the importance of these needs. And indeed, Ubell tacitly acknowledges that ad nauseum debates over the relative benefits or dangers of shifts from physical to digital in our tech-infused culture have become tedious and rote. But in downplaying questions about learning environments in favor of focusing on the pedagogical practices that might take place there, we miss an important opportunity to draw online learning more meaningfully into the legacies of learning that define higher education.
Framing pedagogy as a set of practices (“best” or otherwise) rather than a holistic system of teaching and learning situated within particular environments feeds a face-to-face bias. More importantly, privileging what and how teachers teach at the expense of where and in what environments they do it insulates the work of teaching from the real conflicts surrounding the rapid expansion and development of online learning, divesting faculty and teaching staff of their role in shaping the experience current and future students will have in their online studies. Without skin in the game of building the structures of online learning students encounter, faculty and teaching staff cede policy control to university administration and course design and development to offices of information and academic technology.
By investing themselves in understanding online learning platforms and paying closer attention to the interfaces they produce — interfaces like Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Coursera, etc. — faculty and teaching staff might shape the future of higher learning, rather than simply react to it. Facilitating meaningful and transformative learning experiences for the students in their care has been the role of the faculty since the earliest days of the university. If faculty and teaching staff seek continuity of practice, surely helping to build new environments of learning is part of it.
Ubell’s article thus unintentionally exposes an important irony: it is precisely a perceived loss of faculty agency that stands as one of the “largest roadblocks to pursuing online teaching.” Since, typically, “faculty members enter classrooms on the campus entirely on their own” and “what they teach and how they teach it is almost totally in their hands,” the sudden presence of “technical and pedagogical support from sophisticated videographers, instructional designers and other personnel” appears to threaten their ability to control the terms of teaching and learning in their classrooms. In Ubell’s terms, when online, “the autonomy of the instructor is threatened.” I do not disagree. It’s the rhetoric of “threat” that is difficult to swallow — it puts faculty and teaching staff in a defensive position, reacting to the perception of conformity instead of driving the conversation. Facing threat, it’s easier to revert to what you can control. The harder and more valuable task is accepting the vulnerability that comes with collaboration and dialog.
Faculty and teaching staff might better inhabit environments of online learning as open-minded designers, rather than simply educators. Easier said than done, considering most educators have never been required to think about designing spaces of learning. The traditional features of the physical classroom, along with the behaviors of its teachers and students, have been by virtue of their ubiquity rendered invisible, and thus rest below the threshold of attention. Teachers and students take for granted the boundaries — buildings, doors, walls, tables, desks and chalkboards — that shape the environments in which they learn. Physical space conditions the mind as much as the body. This is true of both teachers and students.
These invisible constraints, and the practices their structures reinforce, solidify their influence by their unregistered presence, silently proclaiming this is the way things are done. The lineage of this relationship is long, and has become so intertwined with the nature of higher learning as to make learning appear impossible in the absence of these structures. Because both students and teachers are habituated to these spaces, reflections on face-to-face teaching and learning focus almost entirely on relative continuations and disruptions of practice, at the expense of the impact environment has on their development. Endorsed by familiarity, both pedagogical and institutional practices have become tacitly canonized.
Teachers and students do not have to build the lecture hall or the seminar room or the laboratory from scratch each and every time they inhabit it. Instead, we atomize institutional roles related to creating and sustaining these environments. Teachers and students often have no contact with the architects and contractors that build academic buildings, with the facilities management crews that maintain their features, with the information technology experts that keep their wires connected, and with the custodial staff that keep them free of waste and clutter. Because some of these processes can happen below the level of their pedagogical attention, teachers and students are not consciously aware of their importance in creating environments of learning.
Duration in time is a marker of value for higher learning, as we know from the unmatched prestige of the oldest of its institutions. And yet, the physical work required for the endurance of these learning spaces remains ignored by faculty and teaching staff. Educators benefit from this legacy without investing much in maintaining it. Because institutions of higher learning have severed the bonds that hold pedagogical practice and learning environment together, faculty and teaching staff are ill-equipped to suddenly become design thinkers.
And here is where the real benefit of investment in online learning environments comes into play. Teachers and students may not have the skill or the ability to build physical classrooms themselves, but they can take a more active role in shaping digital learning spaces. Investment in campus debates over learning management system adoption, opening lines of communication between teaching staff and administration about course and curriculum design, active collaboration with learning and instructional design teams, and recognition of the capacity for students to help design the spaces of their own learning — each of these must be folded into the practices that shape teaching and learning on our campuses.
Continuing the work of academic technologists by asserting pedagogy in the infrastructure of online learning lays the groundwork for clear and effective online course design. The structure and flow of online learning is still forming, still an emergent combination of environmental manipulation and innovative praxis. Development and implementation of online learning must remain grounded in decisions made, at least in part, by those whom it most directly impacts: teachers and students.
In Counternarratives, Colin Lankshear, Michael Peters, and Michele Knobel brand the features of traditional teaching and learning (features like lecture halls, seminar rooms, and laboratories) “spaces of enclosure” which “separate educational engagement from wider spheres of social practice” (154). The physical classroom is thus often represented as a haven, a separated space in which we might reflect, ask questions, and investigate truth without fear of repercussion. But in an era of unprecedented threat to the mission of higher learning — both economic and ideological — perhaps enclosure is the wrong metaphor. Perhaps higher learning needs to be projected out into the world, inviting all who might benefit it. When faculty and teaching staff extend their pedagogical convictions to all environments of learning, physical or otherwise, we come one important step closer to realizing that vision responsibly.
Rather than seeing the future as an inexorable march toward online, educators must encounter the changing conditions of the present, along with their memories of the past and their hesitations over the future, as interlocking components in a shared endeavor to provide meaningful and transformative learning to all of the students entrusted to them. The story of online learning so far has too often been disruption, suspicion, and distance (both literal and metaphorical). But the reality of online teaching is — and can continue to be — passion, experimentation, and exploration. It’s time we changed the narrative.
Lankshear, Colin, Michael Peters, and Michelle Knobel, “Critical Pedagogy and Cyberspace,” in Henry Giroux, Colin Lankshear, Peter McLaren, and Michael Peters, Counternarratives: Cultural Studies and Critical Pedagogies in Postmodern Spaces (New York: Routledge, 1996), 149–188.