The need for Presence not ‘Contact Hours’

This is a reflection on some key areas which have come to light with the sudden move to online teaching. I wanted to write this post very early our academic term (less than two weeks in) to capture the moment.

While some of the thoughts might appear a bit grumpy, that’s not really representative of how I feel. From what I’ve seen at my institution the move online has had its bumpy moments but overall it’s going ok. If you’d asked me what moving to 100% online over about three weeks would look like then I’d have predicted some kind of socio-tech disaster. Instead, it’s spectacular how quickly everyone has adapted and how well the tech has held up. Perhaps we are discovering we were already working more in digital spaces than we cared to admit?

https://www.flickr.com/photos/markdodds/8572486521 CC: BY NC SA

1. What is crisis and what is digital?

It’s important to separate out our experience of the COVID crisis from our responses to teaching in the digital environment. Access issues and digital platforms struggling under the weight of unplanned for levels of usage are due to the crisis. The speed of the shift to online accounts for the prevalence of some teaching practices which experienced online educators would not recommend (see the points on deficit and practice mirroring). This is to be expected as we all bring the practices we know into new environments. It takes some time to transpose/modify how we work. 

2. Scrutiny

It’s definitive that we don’t scrutinise that which we are normalised to. As such, we tend not to ask too many questions of face-to-face teaching around themes like engagement and participation. Actually, that’s not fair, we do ask a lot of questions, but classic lecture and the seminar practices are still basically sacred and carry massive cultural weight in terms of representing ‘university’. When we move to the digital though, all the questions we should be asking about face-to-face suddenly appear, as the change of location breaks the normalisation spell and greater scrutiny is applied. 

I’d argue that all the pedagogical questions we are asking about the digital environment should also be applied to the physical environment, especially on questions of engagement, access and inclusion. I’ve seen the ‘How do we know students are really engaging?’ question being applied with more enthusiasm online than it usually is face-to-face because embodiment is a powerful, but false, proxy for engagement. 

3. Deficit 

Because we are responding to a crisis we are inevitably clashing with our current (face-to-face) students’ expectations of what they signed-up for. Given this, it’s inevitable that online teaching is framed by what it’s not rather than what it is. It’s seen in deficit, which tends to mask opportunities and the take up of ‘new’ modes of teaching. The simplest example of ‘new’ (retro-novel) being the use of asynchronous modes of engagement, such as the humble discussion forum (a lively discussion forum is a difficult thing to foster, but then a lively discussion amongst students in any context has always required expert facilitation).  

That’s not st say that we aren’t already recognising the benefits of online teaching. Anecdotally I’m hearing that lots of courses are seeing much higher levels of attendance than before and that many students find the online environment more inclusive, especially those who are perhaps more reflective or those for whom English is not their first language.

4. Practice mirroring

The principle of Contact Hours is, in my opinion, the biggest stumbling block for the move to online teaching. The narrow definition of Contact Hours in the UK basically boils down to ‘time spent in the same room together’. In largely face-to-face institutions there are vague gestures towards ‘online’ as contact but in most courses this doesn’t seem to be officially mapped in. This is amplified by a cultural attachment to the University as a set of buildings. (Until you can screw a plaque to a VLE with the name of a benefactor on it I guess buildings will always win?)

So in the move to online teaching our initial instinct is to preserve Contact Hours by mirroring what would have been face-to-face sessions with webinar style sessions. What this looks like is exhausting 3-4 hour online sessions which must be almost impossible to stay engaged with. Not only is this unstatable, it is also damaging to the learning process. In short, our limited conception of ‘Contact’ is antithetical to what we claim we are trying to achieve, especially when we move online.

Broadening  presence

In an era of information abundance we know that students are more interested in moments of contact than they are in access to content. Beyond credintialisaion, it’s access to expertise and those moments of feedback and co-presence which come to signify ‘what they are paying for’. Of course, some courses also offer access to specialist equipment but even then I’d argue that access to expertise is still the main concern. 

What I propose is that instead of thinking in terms of Contact Hours we should move to the concept of presence -the extent to which a member of teaching staff is present and in what mode. This could come in many forms:

  1. A fairly quick, reliable, turnaround to emailed questions
  2. Being active ‘live’ in forums or text chats (an ‘office hours’ approach to asynchronous)  
  3. Lively synchronous sessions – such as, webinars with plenty of Q&A
  4. Artfully ‘flipped’ use of pre-recorded teaching videos 
  5. Audio, video or text summative feedback (if it’s been created just for you then it’s always a moment of presence)
  6. …and of course face-to-face sessions in various forms.

We are highly attuned to the levels of presence and attention (we are social beings) which is why a move to online shouldn’t involve cutting staff time or staff-student ratios. 

With some thought it should be possible to weight the various modes of engagement as forms of presence and broaden out beyond the ‘time spent in the same room’ concept. Making this work would involve being explicit with students how these various forms of presence support learning and contextualising the value of face-to-face as one of many presence modes. Communicating that will not be easy, as it requires a shift in what we perceive as ‘university’, but this is something we need to do if we are going to be increasingly online from now on. 

The digital erosion of trust

This post is an exploration of a theme which I mentioned in the 16/04/2020 edition of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with  Bonni Stachowiak and Jose Bowden.

it was also part of the discussion at the online workshop Bonnie Stewart and myself ran at OER20.

Given the dangers currently involved in daily life it’s understandable why many people want to employ every aspect of information which can be reaped from the digital environment to reduce risk. In China we hear of an app which shows the body temperature of your delivery driver and in the UK there appear to be plans for an app which will tell you if you have been in close proximity to someone who may have the virus. Forms of surveillance that only weeks ago would have been considered such a serious infringement of our rights they might have been left unsaid, are now being mooted on a daily basis. 

CC:BY Peter Leth https://www.flickr.com/photos/peterleth/4505254988

This is where I find the phrase: “Just because we can doesn’t mean that we should” extremely useful. The reason being that once technology presents us with an opportunity to reduce risk – with the inevitable negation of trust* – we feel a pressure to employ it (who wants to be the person who has to say ‘We decided not to use it’ when something goes wrong?). This plays out in numerous ways across society and in education, which myself and Bonnie Stewart explored in our session for OER20.

Our OER20 session

Care vs Surveillance 

In preparing the session, Bonnie suggested that many of the most contentious issues around the use of technology for teaching can be expressed as a tension between care and surveillance. For example, it could be considered caring to track students in digital platforms to understand how they are engaging with their learning. It can also be considered surveillance. In technology, care and surveillance tend to go hand-in-hand.

If we ignore this data and don’t identify that some students have all but dropped out then are we failing in our duty as educators? Once this source of information exists we have to be extremely deliberate in our reasons for using it or avoiding it. In a sector which is increasingly massified, data often stands in for relationships as the notional medium for care, and yet no institution has ever increased surveillance without claiming its role is to create a more caring, or safer, environment. 

Trust vs Fairness

The main casualty here is trust. Whenever we introduce something to increase ‘fairness’ we also reduce trust. For example, with online submissions of assessed work we track very closely if students hand-in work late. We can also identify which student we think submitted which piece of work by looking at their login. In many cases we don’t need to trust students to do the right thing because we have a digital process which negates trust in favour of fairness.

This could also be seen as protecting the reputation of the institution and the value of what it awards. Trust vs fairness and surveillance vs care are not simple problems to solve, they are tensions which require complex negotiation across managers, teachers and students. Even so, we all have stories of technologies which have been introduced that circumvent any negotiation by reifying aspects of surveillance and fairness as standard ‘features’. This often makes concrete an implicit aspect of institutional culture which actually required significant discretion.

Upholding freedoms 

As education moves online we are going to have to get better at stating, and upholding, our values around trust and care with the concomitant acknowledgment of the risk we are accepting to protect certain freedoms. If not, then education will continue to merge with the corporate/civic surveillance state we are now only too aware of. To avoid sleepwalking into this new normal there will be times where we must deliberately refuse to use aspects of the data and control which technology offers, even when there are demands framed in terms of fairness or reduction of risk. 

Freedom is risky and risk requires trust. I believe that educational institutions, especially universities, should create spaces of negotiated risk. My hope is that we can do this in both our physical and digital spaces so that the latter does not become a surveillance tool we use to ‘balance out’ trust gifted in other environments. Certainly now is a time to uphold trust in the face of surveillance whether that be with our students as we teach online or in wider society. Extending our ability to know and control is not axiomatic as it is better to be free than to be risk free.