With the increase in the easing of restriction-measures across the world (at the same time that coronavirus infections are also continuing to increase on a worldwide scale), I would like to share some of my concerns or reflections over the growing calls to return to offline on-campus education. While some countries have already returned to full on-campus educational capacity across all age groups, some countries are busy making plans on how to implement these easing measures for the coming new academic year starting in September. Although I share some of the concerns and arguments those calling for a full return to on-campus education have expressed in recent weeks, I will claim that I would prefer not to return to full on-campus offline education until the pandemic is more contained.

The reason I share some of these concerns for on-campus education is that I think what these voices are calling for is somewhat similar to what I would like to claim in this blog post. That is —that the core element in any education process are the pedagogical relationships established in such environments (whether offline or online). In other words, while we all want to foster strong educational/pedagogical relationships there seem to be many —sometimes incompatible— ways to do so. I will try to share my rationale as someone who has been both a teacher and student during these last few months of self-quarantining and online education. I would also like to caveat my preference not to return to offline education as a privileged position of someone who has been able to maintain good material conditions to continue my educational progress as teacher and/or student. For those struggling to secure such basic material conditions —which accounts for a significant part of the student body— I would hesitate to make such general and provocative claims. Nevertheless, I feel the gist of what I explore in this blog post is still important to express and so I have decided to share these concerns whilst taking into account these limitations to my argument.

School – what for?

To make a long story short – in my view school allows to foster strong educational relationships between students and teachers, students and students, and teachers with other teachers and management. My main priority after following and teaching classes online for the last three months has been to take part in, enable and enhance as much as possible, these pedagogical relationships. Yes, everyone seems to ‘hate’ video conferencing and online discussion formats. I am not yet entirely sure why. I, for my part at least as a student, have gained new perspectives and have participated in numerous learning opportunities that in the pre-corona era were simply not open/available to me (either because those communities of knowledge were exclusive and ‘closed’, or because the ‘noise’ of the educational system was too loud to hear the essence of it – fostering relationships). Some of these educational opportunities may not have been given by my main education provider and so I jumped on any additional learning opportunity when it arose. This included daytime or late-evening zoom-based seminars, reading-groups, conferences, online discussions, body movement dancing sessions, live tutorials, etc. Also as a teacher, I feel that I have benefited from learning new modes of working, teaching and collaborating across many diverse platforms.  

The nature of the neoliberal higher education model has been highly criticized pre-corona era for being an educational landscape in which each institution fights in a survival of the fittest kind of race to get the most tuition-paying students to inhabit its corridors in order to pay the bills. Having said that and given the shift to online education, new alliances and collaborations between main education provider and secondary education providers can and should be explored, established and sustained in a more collective manner. In that sense I am afraid that some of the calls to immediate on-campus offline education are also part of or influenced by the neo-liberal impetus to offer not necessarily a ‘high-quality’ or ‘proper’ education but a ‘better quality’ or ‘more proper’ education than the competing education providers are offering. I am also skeptical in idealizing too much the pre-corona era in which many students sat in classes feeling rather alienated and looked through the window thinking when their mandatory attendance class would end so they could go home to rest or study on their own or go party with friends. In other words, ‘physical’, on-campus education, was not always an enabling experience. As the voices to return to on-campus education increase, I am somewhat reluctant to champion such education as emancipatory or empowering. Can we really say that the lessons learned during the recent Black Lives Matter protests on the streets (while we weren’t busy at school) did not teach us a necessary lesson? At times continuing or going back to a new-normal model of education might reinstate the same inequalities that the pre-corona era had in place (one relevant example here would be a curriculum which is not attuned to social emancipatory calls to decolonialize the curriculum).

In other words, I think it might be too early to bury the online educational ‘experiment’ we are still going through. We (students, teachers and management alike) are all still discovering new ways to come together to learn, teach and work together. The new pedagogical relationships we make are awkward, not always photogenic or properly audible, and do not always leave us with a feeling that we have learned something. However, if the main goal is to build and foster strong pedagogical relationships, I am not entirely sure we are not taking part in very important lessons. These lessons will surely follow me for years to come. Even if they are proven to be of ‘inferior quality’ or ‘improper’, surely these are lessons I wouldn’t want to have missed.

As a student a few things that really helped me learn these past months*:

1. Deadlines were somewhat flexible and adjusted to the capacities of all students and staff.
2. Smaller online meetings to socialize when needed/desired.
3. Joining/auditing small tutorial/ online classes from within and without my main education provider in which interesting and relevant issues were discussed and applied to daily practices.
4. I was privileged enough to have a roof above my head, enough food to eat and good company. This is a major point which demands more self-critique/reflection. For students in precarious households that don’t guarantee or allow a safe, nourishing and enabling environment, a return to the physical school structure as a safe haven, shelter or home would be critical. At the same time this is also a place where governments can step in to assure the basic material and safety conditions are met for these students rather than placing the full sheltering and caring responsibility on educational settings alone.
5. An attentive and caring thesis supervisor who could spare at least 30 min-1 hour a month to discuss my personal progress.
6. A research focus helped me stay on track even when the need/demand of ‘deliverables’ changed.
7. A diary/notebook to track the different interactions or reflections in the lessons/seminars.
8. An awareness that my embodied situated perspective/knowledge should/would inform and to a certain extent dictate the ‘lessons learned’.
9. An open and friendly dialogue with classmates and teachers.
10. A feeling that although quarantined, I was not alone in the learning process.

As a teacher a few things that really helped me teach these past months*:

1. Clear and coherent schedule to actually meet face-to-online-face with students.
2. A practice of self-care when the workload felt too much of a burden.
3. A roof above my head, enough food to eat and a more or less clear and clean space to communicate from.
4. A good internet connection.
5. A good set of earphones (I should have also invested in a good mic).
6. A feeling that my identity as a teacher was still being nourished and developed.
7. Students that shared their genuine concerns, own personality traits and dynamic energy.
8. An awareness that my embodied situated perspective/knowledge should/would inform and to a certain extent dictate the ‘lessons taught’.
 9. An open and caring dialogue with colleagues, students and managers.
10. A feeling that although quarantined, there was still a strong relationship to explore, sustain and develop with students and colleagues.

* When pedagogic relationship are nourished learning and teaching are more entangled. Simply put, I learn best when I teach best, and I teach best when I learn best.

** My focus in this blog post is on higher education and not primary or secondary education (to avoid righteous claims from parents to younger children that they cannot work at home while their young children at home. The question is different when explored in the higher education context for adults above 18).

Further reading: Letter to My Beloved Students: Why I Will be Offering My Courses Remotely This Fall Semester (Hint: Pandemic)

Ohad Ben Shimon is an artist, researcher and educator with a background in Cognitive Sciences, Psychology, Cultural Analysis, International Business Education and Art. He is currently PhD candidate at the Research Institute for Cultural Inquiry (ICON) of the Faculty of Humanities at Utrecht University and Senior Lecturer of Critical Thinking/ Researcher of Change Management at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. His PhD research funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO) focuses on the role of embodiment in knowledge-based organisations.

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