As education is triaged in this pandemic, we must be cautious not to become infected with distance learning. Like it or not, we are a people guilty of toxic positivity, something imperative to now inspect. Margaret Cassidy’s “Book Ends: The Changing Media Environment of American Classrooms,” chronicles a long-standing belief in the salvation power of technology. Despite efforts, people have remained at education’s center. When this pandemic is over, will we shrink back the distance?
What is toxic about this positivity? It starts when technology is viewed as the salvation to human problems, so people turn a blind eye to what technologies undo. Toxic positivity grows by belief in the myths that technological progress is both inevitable and neutral. One tracing of this myth comes from Thomas Ewbank, the commissioner of patents from 1849 to 1852, who said, “It is they who, by discovering new physical truths, are establishing the grandest of moral ones — perpetual progress. … Though not suspected, the power of inventors over human affairs is already supreme; machinery now governs the world, though the world does not acknowledge it.”
Perpetual progress is an oxymoron. Climate change is yelling that lesson at us. The neutrality of technology, though, is the thornier of the two assumptions for educators. Technologies fostering communication often are the best at hiding their agendas.
What agendas are hiding in distance learning? Online, educators must choose synchronous modes, like using Zoom for live meetings, or asynchronous ones, where classes never start or end. Many in education encourage the latter, which is to say, encourage instructors to ignore time. Often this is borne out of a valid concern for digital access, but access is nevertheless the lowest of pedagogical triumphs.
The most useful alteration in a pandemic is space. Suddenly, an educator teaches “in” dozens of uncommon places simultaneously. Online, humans become virtual things. If that seems trivial, you likely are among technology’s most faithful. I once heard a technology-enhanced learning specialist encourage an instructor to make his online materials “semester agnostic” by removing references to dates in recorded materials.
In an effort to teach anywhere, educators end up teaching nowhere. In an effort to teach at any time, we teach to nobody in particular.
The shifting notions of time, space, and humanity are existential. Maybe this is why students today suffer from epidemic levels of mental health problems — or why there are apps to remind us to drink water. Surveys tell us that most students and most instructors do not prefer distance learning, yet it already was advancing.
The News Tribune, on March 28, thankfully posted a refreshingly honest video of college students talking about their troubles learning at a distance, which exemplified this often-overlooked reality.
Sure, a pandemic is a good reason to use distance learning. Folks all over at my University of Minnesota Duluth are doing great work to pull us through this abnormal time. But technology’s agenda only resets if we reset it, which our culture cannot be counted on to do.
Using phrases like “the new normal” hastens the normalizing process. Indeed, technology reaches insidiously into normality by how it alters our language, like how House Party calls itself a “face-to-face” app or like how Oxford Dictionary’s 2015 word of the year was an emoji.
Young Mike Teavee, from Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory,” will be a serviceable spirit-mind for the coming months. The intrepid inventor Willy Wonka demonstrated in the movie how more than just pictures can be broadcast on “Wonkavision.” Four oompa-loompas then carried out an oversized chocolate bar. Wonka explained, “It has to be big because whenever you send something by television it always comes out smaller on the other end.” Immediately, Mike Teavee, infected with toxic positivity about media, jumped enthusiastically onto the platform, pulled the lever, and shrank himself in the name of progress.
Distance learning encourages us to forget that education is about humans and not candy bars or to think of humans as candy bars. Just like in Wonka’s factory, the tools many of us are using are flat-out amazing.
All the more reason why the spirit of Mike Teavee should remind us that in Google Classrooms, on Zoom, and in other digital platforms, people are being cast overhead into tiny bits and reconstituted smaller on the other end.
Aaron R. Boyson is an associate professor of communication at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He wrote this for the News Tribune.