RSS

Category Archives: Social Equity

Why Online Teaching is so Taxing!

Teachers who have been doing remote teaching over the last month or so report complete exhaustion. Not just because they needed to take time to re-design their curricula for remote platforms. Not just because they needed to record videos or re-purpose learning resources for an online platform. Not just because online assessment is a nightmare. But chiefly because of the exhaustion involved in conducting online lessons. And all this at a time when many teachers have to look after their own children and families, when they themselves are experiencing all the stress that we are all going through at this time.

So, why is online teaching itself so taxing? In the classroom you see your class for a set period of time, and you do what you can during the time you have with the class. Your energy goes into being present for your students, either in how you present content, or how you guide and shape their understanding of that content. You have to read the faces in front of you, notice who is beginning to goof off, who wants to ask a question, but needs encouragement, who has a puzzled look on their face, or who is clearly engaged in something else and needs re-directing. From the nods of understanding, or the expressions of sudden realization, you know when you can go on, or whether you need to try explaining something in a different way. You can judge whether or how long to wait after asking a question, or whether to rephrase it better. Face to face interactions require a great deal of work, and it can be exhausting in itself. Teachers suffer a great deal of cognitive overload. You have to keep not only the content you are teaching in mind, but also all the questions around how best to teach it. It is exhausting! But bells ring, and the day has an end. As exhausting as ordinary teaching may be, the week ends, and eventually the term ends. I have always thought that the length of a term is designed precisely to wring the most work out of students and teachers without completely destroying them in the process.

But online work demands a different level of presence. To be digitally present is to be available long beyond any scheduled lesson, worrying about those who never showed up to any online check-in, or who have missed a submission deadline. Teachers online don’t receive absence notes from parents explaining that a student is down with something, or will be away for a few days, but will catch up the work. Often all we have online is a silence that begins to prey on the mind. As emails expressing concern over a student missing in action go unanswered and days become weeks, the mind begins to invent all sorts of explanations, fears of all sorts and grieving for lost time and contact. Teachers are concerned about reaching all their students. But during a lock-down, if emails go unanswered, this concern can become all consuming!

Furthermore, students check-in at all hours of the day and night, with queries and concerns. I had one student ask a question at 2 am in the morning. There is far less of a switch-off point. If you are expecting students to work asynchronously, you more or less have to expect to maintain an asynchronous digital presence yourself. You may have announced that you will be keeping office hours, but if students have been missing in action, when they do pop up at an ungodly hour, it is hard not to respond immediately.

When you are teaching synchronously, reading the room is not easy, either. All the usual cues are largely missing. Facial expression and body language are harder to read, and a great deal more effort needs to go into understanding who wants, or needs to speak. Even managing conversations is more difficult with the false starts and technical glitches that bedevil meetings on Zoom, or whatever platform you are using. As someone who finds it difficult enough to read social cues under normal circumstances, learning how to do it all over again online is a nightmare!

All of these things make teaching remotely particularly taxing intellectually and emotionally. The cognitive load is much higher than in face to face teaching. It seems to me that the only way to cope with this added stress is firstly to recognise it, and secondly to begin to re-align our expectations and curriculum planning to accommodate this new reality. Most syllabi stress a relentless loading of content, breadth not depth has always been the name of the game. School administrators, districts and examination boards need to reassure teachers that the same coverage of content will not be expected during this period. Educational aims can still be met, but expectations around curriculum content needs revision. Is there really a need to study 18 set poems, perhaps covering 12 meets the same aims!? Perhaps one major piece of writing can be assessed rather than three? Perhaps some units of study can be left out, and more time spent on the remaining units?

We all need to go easier on ourselves, or teachers will be facing major burnout by the end of the school year!

 

 

Decolonizing Computer Education – What People’s Education has to teach us.

Education in South Africa is in turmoil. In many ways our post-Apartheid educational dispensation has failed to address the problems it inherited. The big question of how to grant greater access and equity through education – perhaps best summed up by the slogan Decolonizing Education was not settled after the fall of Apartheid. Our education system is still unequal, and still largely divided along racial lines.

When I was training to become a teacher in the 1980s, the big question was some version of a Liberation Before Education or Liberation Through Education debate. Education is clearly a key component in social empowerment and social justice. The 1976 riots sprung from deep-seated unhappiness with a separate and unequal education system which taught white students blind obedience, and black students subservience. People’s Education for People’s Power emerged as a movement in response to a call by the Soweto Parents’ Crisis Committee in 1985 and a series of conferences and publications issued by the National Education Crisis Committee in 1986. Two subject committees were active in advancing content for a People’s English and People’s History curriculum. The focus was on a reformed curriculum reflecting the agency and needs of ordinary South Africans. While greater local (ie. African) content and focus was a key component of the vision, the really crucial concern was with turning knowledge into an agent for greater power and control. The history syllabus, for example was concerned not just with the study of South African history, but with a history from below approach. Using E.H. Carr’s seminal text What is History? as a basis, the NECC pushed for a rigorous and critical skill-set which would allow students to use their own, their local and national histories as a lens for developing social agency and power. People’s English, likewise, sought to use English as a means of critiquing power and empowering agency – ” to think and speak in non-racial, non-sexist and non-elitist ways” (Gardiner, n.d, p.9). The need to develop an alternative educational vision for a post-Apartheid South Africa was clear and urgent.

The South African History Archive – Images of Defiance

My first teaching job was as a teacher in a People’s Education pilot project school called Phambili in Durban in the early 1990s in the period leading up to the first democratic elections in 1994. Phambili school, a flagship of People’s Education, had two aims, to intervene in the educational crisis caused by the massive exclusion from the schooling system of students who had protested against Apartheid Education in the decade and a half after the 1976 uprising, and to pilot new democratic forms of school governance and curriculum. The school was, however, bedeviled by mismanagement and corruption by some “struggle” dignitaries. The school managed to continue thanks to a dedicated staff and board members, but faced severe lack of funding and persistent attacks from both the Apartheid State and corrupt opposition politicians who wanted to secure the building for their own personal gain. Phambili refused to go away and when I joined the staff in 1991, was struggling to resurrect itself. I was employed as an English and History teacher, and in both these faculties we tried to pilot People’s Education curricula. The English Faculty invited student representatives to join our meetings and this proved an incredibly enriching experience. As a Matric teacher there was not much I could do to change the setworks studied, but I Africanised the unseen setworks and comprehension passages chosen. In my first week of teaching I was challenged by my Matric 10B class on the whole question of why we studied Shakespeare. I hummed and hawed a bit, said a few things about universal human values, and the need to study the canon, but I could see the class was unconvinced. Luckily for me that weekend an article appeared in the Sunday newspapers about Chris Hani, leader of the Communist Party and liberation hero, who said how much he admired Shakespeare and had studied him in the guerilla camps in Tanzania. I cut it out and pinned it to my door. Not only did opposition to studying Shakespeare disappear, but my classroom was renamed Chris Hani Base Camp. I had clearly passed some kind of test.

The way that we came to theorize what people’s English looked like at Phambili was founded on our notion of agency. I was not aware of the works of Mikhail Bakhtin at that time, but the sense of the need to give our students access to the literacies and knowledges of power while at the same time developing the power of their own voice was central. This deeply dialogic notion foregrounds the agency of student voices while recognising that hegemonic literacies and discourses need to be mastered.

The History faculty used the NECC published textbook What is History? as its central text, but I believe we built a strong sense of history from below as a critical tool for confronting power. Poor historians make poor revolutionaries could have been our mantra. Things came to a head at a History teachers’ conference at the University of Natal where plans for a new History syllabus were unveiled which directly conflicted with our notion of People’s Education. The syllabus seemed to us to be triumphalist. History was to become the story of the ANC’s rise to power, much as history under the National Party had been subservient to political propaganda. We agitated from the floor, and were eventually granted an audience with John Pampallis. When the new curriculum was eventually unveiled, after the elections in 1994, very little remained of people’s Education.

And that I think is the problem. Subsequent revisions of the curriculum were to incorporate an extreme version of Outcomes Based Education, a somewhat reactionary and behaviourist educational philosophy, which was opaque and technicist and views education as the mastery of discrete skills. Although, clearly, much has changed for the better, our education system remains a two-tiered system replicating inequality and stifling agency. The sense of liberation through education that people’s Education engendered has all but disappeared and the focus is now on South Africa’s failing matriculation pass rate and position at the bottom of the international league tables. The current cry to decolonize education can only be seen as an indictment of the failures to implement an education system that meaningfully addresses the inequalities of the past. We need a return to the People’s Education agenda.

So, what would a People’s Computer Education curriculum look like? Computing represents a literacy of power, increasingly so as our lives become dominated by digital technologies. I would argue that computing education needs to empower students and promote agency both by giving students access to these voices of power, but also by empowering the power of students’ voice, their ability to express their creativity and ideas through digital media. Robert Reich (1992) has argued that the new Information Economy is reproduced by a two-tiered education system that produces a labour force of data capturers on the one hand, and a managerial class of information/symbol manipulators on the other. As computer educators we need to ensure that we are giving all our students access to the skills and dispositions which will enable them as digital masters rather than merely hewers of wood and carriers of water in the new digital economy. If we teach spreadsheets it should not just be about the how, it also needs to be about the why, it needs to prepare students for entrepreneurship and creativity. If we teach coding, it should not be just so that students can write some code, it needs to encompass a vision of a humanity that can rise above the challenge of Artificial Intelligence, that has a purpose and dream, that has a destiny.

I realise that this formulation is hopelessly Romantic, but I am an optimist and I believe we need to teach hope, and inspire our students to be the masters of their own lives. Ultimately Computing from below is the story of a new humanism that rejects a society that is mechanical and technocratic, but sees technology as an extension of the human will to survive and thrive. Ultimately People’s Computing needs to teach students to see a society in which they can use digital technologies to advance their lives and build a world that is non-classist, non-sexist and non-racist.

Bibliography

Gardner, M, (n.d) Transforming Itself: People’s Education for people’s Power and Society in South Africa. Accessed https://www.sahistory.org.za/sites/default/files/archive-files2/remar87.5.pdf

Reich, R. (1992). The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism. New York: Vintage Books. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Work-Nations-Preparing-Ourselves-Capitalis-ebook/dp/B004CFAW7A 

The South African History Archive. http://www.saha.org.za/imagesofdefinace/10_fighting_years_1976_1986_peoples_education_for_peoples_power.htm

 
 
%d bloggers like this: