In his blog entry “Digitally Drunk” (March 28, 2020), Simon Strick describes the challenges of digital teaching and learning as students and teachers all over the world experience it right now. He depicts how he and his colleagues suddenly become nervous before teaching an online class. The safe and usual space of the classroom is now transferred online, a realm that no one really can assess. According to Strick, we all, teachers and students, get “digitally drunk” because there is no other way than to immerse ourselves in digital spheres.
Strick draws a negative picture of online teaching. He seems to be desperate and worried about how digital learning might shape the future. From his point of view, online teaching is doomed to fail. Here, it is important to consider his profession as a teacher of humanities. He can only refer to his personal experience as someone who mainly engages with a field like media studies, cultural studies, and is, thus, far from representing a global attitude.
Nevertheless, Strick raises questions that are interesting to look at, especially from our perspective as teachers and students of humanities at Kiel University. For example, Strick is afraid of cognitive capitalism. Right now, governments and universities provide millions of Euros to improve the digital infrastructure to prepare universities for online teaching. Kiel University, for instance, announced to invest €2 million in digitalization. This money is, first and foremost, used to buy licenses for online conference tools like Zoom or Adobe Connect. Most of these companies providing programs for online meetings are profit-oriented. Strick is, therefore, afraid of the commodification of digitalization and, consequently, education. Most students do not seem to share this fear. They rather wonder if there is a way around these companies if you want to conduct an online class. The answer is yes. DFNconf, a video conference platform that is used by teachers at Kiel University, is run by a non-profit organization. Also, BigBlueButton and OpenOLAT, which are mainly used at Kiel University, are open-source products. Thus, there are alternatives to the big players. Even though they might not be as optically appealing as their commercial options, they are also preferable in terms of privacy policies.
Another point Strick raises in his blog entry is his fear of the effects of digital learning on how classes deal with difficult topics. We all agree that teaching is emotional. Especially cultural studies are highly affective. They live from discussions within the community in the safe space of an offline classroom. Here, we often deal with challenging issues like racism. Such demanding topics need a realm in which students and teachers can tackle them together. These topics require the mindfulness only physical presence can provide. Online teaching makes discussions like this awkward since you cannot see your fellow students and their reactions. It is difficult to transfer the needed mindfulness of an offline class to an online seminar. The safe space that is invoked by the collective that students form in the classroom is lost.
Online teaching also requires forms of presentations that work digitally. But is it possible to convey critical knowledge with those? Interestingly, students report that they expected to feel more comfortable discussing challenging topics in an online class due to spatial distance. This impression has changed completely. Now, online classes bring difficult issues to students’ homes. University and personal life are intertwined. This also supports Strick’s claim that there is no such thing as a home office but only a home where you usually eat, sleep, relax, and now also work. In every online class, we experience that those spheres cannot be separated. There is always some factor that interrupts the flow of an online class.
Strick consequently questions if the epistemology of teaching subjects like culture or media studies is restricted by technology. Maybe digitalization is too young to predict how teaching humanities will develop in the future. Nonetheless, a commentator on Strick’s blog entry wonders why someone who deals with media studies for a living does not come up with more creative approaches to teaching. At Kiel University, students think that smaller classes with about 10 people improve the experience of online teaching since students are then more willing to respond to questions. There are ways to enhance the online collaboration of students and teachers, for instance, using online discussion boards, integrating whiteboard, or writing collaborative essays. Yet, ideas like this need more time to be implemented.
Strick mentions that after being drunk, there often follows a hangover. Only the first month of this digital semester is over and students and teachers in Kiel already seem to be digitally hungover. Online teaching is perceived as tiring since everyone hardly gets away from the screen. But despite all the challenges digital learning and teaching provide especially for classes of humanities and which Strick is worried about, there are still ways to cover challenging topics in an online class, even without commodifying education.