Are you there? Can you hear me? The impact of COVID-19 on higher education

Contribution by: Sofie Smeets, PhD candidate at the Department of Cultural Anthropology

Online onderwijs ©

Contribution bySofie Smeets for the Gender, Diversity and COVID-19 platform. The platform offers a series of short blogposts in which we invite different Hub members and researchers to share their findings, insights and reading tips on issues of inclusion and exclusion related to the Corona crisis.

Since March 2020, due to corona measures, higher education in the Netherlands takes place mostly online. I experienced the sweeping shift to online teaching from two sides, as I am a teacher at Hogeschool Rotterdam and a part time PhD-student focusing on diversity in higher education. Being where we are now, I wonder how much room the continuous challenges of online teaching and the ‘business-as-usual’ approach leave for creating inclusive learning environments.

Ideas on inclusive learning highlight the importance of active exchange and personal presence, in order to explicate positionality, counter possible incorrect assumptions and create an open space for all attendants.

However, to my experience, in online classes it is harder to establish such a context. I have fewer means for engagement and interaction and, like educational anthropologist Susan Blum, I feel unable to create “the more interactive, active classrooms… [the] democratic nonauthoritarian conversation, rather than orchestrated teacher-centered pedagogy”. Additionally, in online settings students easier disconnect, withdraw and go unnoticed and an online class sometimes feels more like a séance: “Shawny, are you there? If you hear me can you give me a sign?”.

Warnings about losing connection were already mentioned in March. Engaged scholars critiqued the business-as-usual approach to education. By presenting online as ‘normal’ the implication was made that online and offline education are equal substitutes. The authors instead point out this approach reveals the narrow idea of what education has come to be understood as: knowledge transfer over critical exchange and human engagement.

Of course, there are ways to create meaningful online interactions, from individual meetings, to video letters and journaling. And I, like many teachers, have tried several of the various tools to read an online class: break-out rooms, interactive presentations, online quizzes, games, etc. Yet, I wonder, are those actions up to the individual teacher, or the individual teams of teachers? If we look for tips and tricks to deal with doubts and insecurities about how our classes come across, questions whether we reach our students or not, are we then individualizing an experience that is rather shared and structural?

Moreover, online is not offline, and technology is not pedagogy and I wonder, more and more, what it requires to build a community online. How to teach through the screen, not to the screen. How can we centrepiece the experiences of students in digital education? How can we create a safe environment online where everyone feels welcome, a space to be present in their own way in 100% online classes? It seems we still tend to conceptualise online classes as the original offline classes, and in survival mode there is no space and time to truly change our ways. It is as if the train of higher education changed its tracks, but we did not change the wheels. I wonder how this rocks students and teachers – if they are still on board.