Embracing Online Learning as an Invitation to Change
You are a bug. Don’t worry – this is not Kafka’s Metamorphosis. No one finds you repulsive. It’s just that earlier this year you felt like a fine six-legged specimen with a firm exoskeleton, sensitive antennae, and food reserves to last out the winter, and now you just feel eminently squashable.
You are a bug.
You look around in this web-based environment of teaching and learning and see spiders who seem to be thriving. With their eight agile legs, they seem to be able to navigate all the interconnected threads of apps and programming languages and learning management systems. They have eight eyes; of course they can see a way out of this tangle. They are weaving elaborate designs out of their own silk. By comparison, the course you are delivering online now looks like a hodgepodge reassembled from the mangled corpses of courses you used to love. Your students may not say that, but you know. You know it is all held together with spit and string.
You think to yourself, If I had eight legs and spent my life on the web, I could move in every direction and feel stable on this wobbling surface, too. If I were a spider, all this interconnected communication technology would feel like native territory. The learning objectives are standing in the same places they have always been. If I had eight eyes, I would be able to focus on the important stuff again.
Unfortunately, you are not a spider.
Unfortunately, you are not a spider. You cannot hitch on a couple of robot legs and three pairs of goggles and go rushing around like the creatures who have been operating in this space all along. With some practice and cautious innovation, you can move gradually from one objective to another without feeling threatened, but you are not suddenly going to start weaving words and inspire some pig to escape his demise.
Secretly, though, I have a suspicion that you are no typical bug. You are a caterpillar. Right now, you may be moving slowly and feeling hungry all the time, but if you follow your instincts and give yourself space, you may find that you can emerge from your dark cocoon as a butterfly. As a butterfly, you no longer need to worry about your prowess as a webcrawler. You can fly.
You can emerge from your dark cocoon as a butterfly.
Transforming from your slow grub-like state into an aerial master does not happen instantly, though, and it begins with a kind of internal collapse. To get there, you may need to give up what you previously understood to be your domain and your control over it. Dramatic adjustments to your methods, structure, and priorities take time. Unfortunately, the pace of change and demands of adapting this year have not allowed you the time that you need for a fundamental re-design. In return for enduring the unprecedented changes, though, you might be able to construct a more dynamic pedagogical space in which to operate. When you find yourself interacting with your students face to face again, you may find that your perspective on the educational outcomes that will be most valuable to them and the paths you can take to reach those outcomes look entirely different to a creature with jeweled wings.
The answer to the challenge of remote learning is not to scavenge off the remains of the way you taught in the classroom. You do not have to force yourself into an unsatisfactory imitation of someone else’s online instruction. Mastering the technology and navigating the web more effectively are not your foremost goals.
Instead, you may need to transform the way that you teach and even your ideas of the educational endeavor overall. Reconsider your objectives. Take the opportunity to teach digital literacy. Transfer more power over the course and where it goes to the students. Think less in terms of lectures and readings and papers and more in terms of explorations and discussions and tasks that resemble the work that professionals really do in your field.
Then, as you strive to continue teaching well, you may find that you can exchange short-term discomfort for long-term flexibility and freedom that you never anticipated.
Eat up, hungry caterpillar.
Eat up, hungry caterpillar. Your metamorphosis awaits.