“Digitally Drunk”

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.

3 replies on ““Digitally Drunk””

I do agree that there are many difficulties teachers and students have to face in this crisis. Online classes can be very exhausting and they rarely lead to lively discussions – instead the internet crashes, there are sound problems, children demand the attention of their parents and so on. This all can be quite annoying. Still, I shortly want to present a different side of the story: Personally, I don’t feel “digitally hungover” at all. Of course, every teacher has a personal teaching style and some fit the idea of online classes better than others. But since most of them are doing this for the first time in their lives, we should try to see it at as a learning opportunity and give them feedback for improvements. This, of course, implies that teachers should be open for changes in their teaching style. Also, I don’t really think that we spend more time than usual in front of a screen. During a ‘normal’ offline class, teachers often use powerpoint presentations, while students bring their own laptops, tablets and/or phones with them. The difference is that nowadays, we have no classroom to go to, but have to use our “home office”. I agree that a place like a home office doesn’t really exist in most cases and I also had problems dissociating university from home when this semester started: I had a huge to-do-list on my wall and could hardly relax. But I think now that the teachers and students get used to this kind of teaching, this gets easier as well.
Furthermore, I think it is more comfortable to work from home, since this has been my favorite place to study anyways. It is also more compatible with my job and class schedule: I don’t have to take the bus to university after work, but can actually go home and maybe even cook before my class starts. Also, the typical “first-come, first choice” system of choosing our classes sometimes creates a ‘funny’ schedule: On Wednesday I have a class at 8 and the next one at 18 o’ clock. Now that I don’t need to be physically present at class, I am able to participate better and feel overall more productive. It does feel overwhelming sometimes, but in the end I get everything done.
For the future, I would like the university to agree on one integrated platform that will be used by every teacher, like Daria suggested in her post “Digital Confusion” and I would also like a mix out of online and offline classes to get the full learning experience.

I do agree that online teaching and learning are a challenge, especially for those working with humanities. It can be very difficult to discuss topics in an appropriate way and that lack of depth often results from technical problems.
Strick has an extremely negative understanding of online teaching. Many of his points are well reliable as there are problems in discussing topics such as racism over a Big Blue Button session. I also do not think that the quality of the online courses I visited is on the same level as it would be in a regular class room situation.
However, at one point it is no longer okay to criticize without giving ideas for improvement. Strick is right by saying that teaching humanities over the internet is not always the best method but he forgets about one point. Teachers also need to be creative in their classes. Instead of only highlighting the disadvantages he could rather think of ways to use online learning sessions in a way that can work for his classes. Even though I see Strick’s point of cognitive capitalism; I must say that this problem is neither a new one, nor do I believe that there is anything we can do about it.
In the first weeks of quarantine I also felt digitally drunk but after a few weeks I thought it was time to take an Aspirin and quit the booze. Once I left the clouds of digitally hungover town I found ways of dealing with online sessions that made it more comfortable and in the end I felt that it is not about better or worse learning but more about different forms of learning.
In the beginning everything new is confusing but is it not a human strength to be able to get used to anything? So let’s just try to make the best out of the situation and try to find ways to make online learning a tool that suits our needs!

The human being is a creature of habit; most of us appreciate the well-known and dislike, at least in the beginning, changes. Especially when a change in a certain situation is forced on us, like Covid-19 forced the e-teaching/e-learning situation on us. Concerning Simon Stricks rather frustrated article, I agree with most of what he says. We all are exposed to an unknown and for most of us new way of studying/teaching with all its (dis-) advantages.
A striking point Strick brings up are the consequences of sitting alone in your homeoffice in front of your laptop, rushing from zoom calls to bigbluebutton meetings and so on. First of all, I agree, that there is no such place as a “homeoffice”, we turned our one-room apartments, bedrooms and kitchen tables into something that might resemble a classroom desk or a desk at the library, which of course has its limits. Apart from that, there is proof for physical and psychological problems that rush in upon us. Stricks colleague complains about a sore throat and headaches, in my surrounding people complain about back pain from sitting most of time and a constant fatigue. For me, as an epileptic, video-conferences pose a special problem as I have to make sure not to look at a screen for too long since that provokes seizures. So good time-managment is crucial to stay healthy – physically as well as mentally. Besides, the so called “zooming-out”, depression, permanent sadness and other forms of psychological consequences of e-teaching/e-learning appear to be a growing problem for which we need to find coping-mechanisms.
Although it seems to me, that many of us enjoy the advantage that we no longer need to “travel” to university, that we can participate in a lecture with our pyjamas on and have a fresh cup of coffee whenever we want to, most of us appear to miss the socializing with other students and the communication in a “real” classroom. Studying in a virtual surrounding goes hand in hand with a certain form of isolation. And as we all know, many forms of psychological problems are a result of isolation.
A point that Simon Strick does not really talk about is security. As soon as something is out in the world wide web, it stays there forever. Are all these video conference providers safe? What are they doing with our data? We don’t know. I remember having a zoom call with my former fellow students to watch the start and landing of the Falcon-9-rocket together. It was a small meeting of six people and we all know each other quite well. However, there was a seventh unknown participant with an obvious fake account who kept kicking one of us out of the call. At first we thought it was one us, but after the account started insulting us in an extremely obscene way, we knew that this was either a virus or a troll. We had to terminate the meeting before the falcon-9 reached the ISS.
Regarding problems like this, I think Strick is right with the statement that it is “the hour of the nerd”, as those students and teachers with a certain technical expertise have an “evolutionary advantage”. They are probably much faster with setting up a video conference, uploading lectures, dealing with hardware issues and solving problems like the one mentioned above.
In summary I agree with Strick in many points and understand why he is reluctant to teach virtually. I too feel that the situation is often frustrating as it is more time consuming (especially skipping through the huge amount of emails we receive 24/7) and on contrary to what many might think, it can be hard physical work and it definitely cannot substitute all the needs of students and limits the possibilities of teaching. Anyway, as it probably says in one of those “pushy-emails” written by deans, which Strick mentions, we are in this together for an unknown period of time so I believe instead of complaining about it, we should consider ourselves lucky that studying is actually possible in a virtual place. We should do our best to get used it, stay patient and make it a (new) habit – at least for the time being.

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