Online Teaching as Prosthesis? Covid19, Ableism and the Academy

During the first weeks of the pandemic and the rushed adjustments made to allow for remote working and teaching, one feeling became palpable within the disability community: anger. After years (read: decades) of fighting for accessibility, the exact same accommodations that had been denied to disabled people time and again (which cost time, income, jobs, and have forced disabled people out of academia), similar demands by nondisabled people were now implemented without much further discussion. Suddenly, home office, online classes and online meetings were not only possible and affordable but deemed vital and necessary. My disabled colleague at another university, for instance, was suddenly allowed to grade student term papers on the computer, while previously, and despite her struggles to do so, being forced to correct them manually due to “legal concerns.” How then, does online teaching as part of the new accessibility impact disabled and chronically ill students and staff in times of Covid19? Is everything better, now that we can work from home and teaching takes place online?

This blog entry responds to online education from a disability studies perspective. When talking about disability during Covid19, I believe it is central to take the intense ableism and microaggressions into account with which disabled and chronically ill people are being confronted because of the pandemic. Being faced with the threat of the virus, as well as deliberations about the expendability of disabled lives, has a decisive impact on our wellbeing and our ability to work and study. The distancing measures (including remote instruction) protect not only particularly vulnerable people, but everyone. While they bear many advantages and indeed respond to many demands that disabled people have made over the years, I focus on the problematic way that remote instruction is framed. I refer primarily to the article “Sites of Normalcy: Understanding Online Education as Prosthetic Technology” that appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly in 2014. According to the authors, Marie Moeller and Julie Jung, online instruction is a form of accessibility and allows students to attend university remotely, which permits “parents, full-time employees, persons with disabilities, persons living in rural areas” to obtain an education. Yet, inadvertently, it also alleviates universities of the pressure (and financial “burden”) to make educational spaces more accessible to marginalized bodies. This “‘benefits’ educational institutions by keeping [nontraditional students] out of sight and conveniently out of mind.” 

Simultaneously, however, cultural narratives devalue online education. Moeller and Jung show how conversations about online teaching, despite the fact that it can improve accessibility, perpetuate and promote ideologies of normalcy, because cultural narratives frame online education as a “pedagogical oddity,” that is marked, together with its users as a “‘less-than’ substitute for the real version.” The authors proceed to describe examples from popular culture, such as the TV series Glee, which help reinforce normalizing ideologies that construct online education as an “inadequate substitute for traditional place-based education.” They illustrate how even advertisements for online courses construct the inability to attend campus as an abnormal, individual problem that can be solved by “special” accommodation through technology. “Furthermore, the reason someone might seek out online education (e.g., a person whose agoraphobia motivates her to learn online) emerges as a problem normal students don’t have and thus for whom online education is not needed.” Following these examples, Moeller and Jung state that by perpetuating the status of online education as a poor substitute for “the real thing,” remote instruction receives a status of “prosthetic technology, which we define as a culturally recognized inferior substitute for a nonexistent yet normatively desired ideal that both constructs its user as a ‘problem’ (you’re not normal) and provides the user with a ‘solution’ (this will make you more normal).”

What does all of this have to do with our Covid19 situation here in Germany? Criticism of online classes, in which my colleagues and I have invested hours and hours of extra work to make this form of teaching possible, claiming that these are “not as good as the real thing” exists in Germany, and at Kiel University, too. In an open letter, more than 2000 lecturers at German universities demand an, albeit careful, return to teaching on campus, citing collectivity, networking and the open exchange between people present (“Anwesende”) as the basic principles of university teaching. Given the short time which students and staff alike had to familiarize themselves with new technology and invent methods to teach digitally, this criticism is perhaps justified. 

Nonetheless, not only does the discussion make the quality and effectiveness of in-class seminars indisputable, perhaps overlooking that good teaching depends on more than being in the same room, but there is also a greater issue at stake: if we are able to return to (perhaps only phases) of place-based education during the winter term, this distinction between “real” education and online “substitute” starts to matter. It starts to matter for students and staff who are part of the #HighRiskCovid19 group. Us folks with diabetes, heart disease, weak immune systems or damaged lungs (or those of us who live with a partner or friend or child who is part of this demographic): we will likely be the ones who will teach, and will be taught, online. I am grateful that provisions for our safety are being made and I wholeheartedly support the statement by the Accessible Campus Action Alliance who warn of the risks campus re-openings pose to disabled students and faculty, as well as to all others. But, according to the article in question (and the normative ideology I recognize in some of the ways we talk about remote instruction), our online education and teaching will be perceived as “less than”. And, following Moeller and Jung, the negative value that is attached to these accommodations are projected onto the bodyminds for whom these accommodations are made. How tempting would it be, if my online class is really not an adequate substitute, to just tell me to get another job? Because surely, I do not want to disadvantage my students? Who would even enroll in my class if you could just have “the real thing” instead? Perhaps only the students who are legitimately afraid of Covid19? See where this is going? 

Don’t get me wrong, I want to “get back to normal,” too. I miss teaching in a classroom, interacting with students and my colleagues in person. And I’m not complaining that the university and the department are allowing me to work and teach from home to protect my health. But we do need to check the way we talk about remote teaching. We need to recognize that the production of online education takes more time, not less, than preparing an in-person class. We need to make sure not to discourage instructors (and students) by perpetuating the idea that no matter how hard we try and how much time we invest, our online lessons will never be as good as the traditional in-person class. Because doing so risks perpetuating the same ableism that the discourse about the pandemic already creates en-masse. Rather, I would love to see a different description of online teaching that describes it neither as “an inherently democratizing ideology [n]or a joke” as Moeller and Jung put it. This appraisal of online teaching is not meant to result in the ‘cost-effective’ removal of in-person teaching, complete with more online classes per teacher and fewer teachers overall. Rather, let’s appreciate online teaching as a valid way of instruction that was, incidentally, born out of crip engagement with, among other issues, higher education. In the words of activist Aimi Hamraie:

“Please recognize that the very types of remote access that universities now mandate for classrooms and conferences have been denied to disabled people. Please also recognize that disabled people have long engaged in refining methods for remote access to protests, classrooms, doctor’s offices, public meetings, and other events. Mention this in your classes so that students know they are benefitting from crip technology and praxis. Commit to accessible teaching because it is crip technoscience and disabled ingenuity that has made remote participation possible.”

I hope that the accommodations during Covid19 that benefit disabled students and staff (which include online education) are a step towards a more inclusive university that does not lead to a split into “online” and “real” education. Because we need more acceptance of disability in higher education and more accessibility to make sure that everyone can participate in higher education equally – during and after Covid.

2 replies on “Online Teaching as Prosthesis? Covid19, Ableism and the Academy”

Want to share with my teaching colleagues who need the extra support to advocate for disabled colleagues and differences in learning that our students bring to the classroom learning.

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