The Anti-Online Rhetoric is Back. But Let’s Keep Dancing.

A few years ago, I met with a woman working in the healing professions to get some life guidance. We spent an hour together talking about my work in higher education, and how I constantly struggled with feeling like an outsider there.

She listened thoughtfully, and then she told me something I’ve never forgotten.

“Whenever you encounter dehumanizing energy, you’ll feel like you don’t belong.”

I had long translated my sense of not fitting in as evidence that I should leave higher ed or that I was somehow defective. Too sensitive. Too empathetic. Too goofy. Not academic enough. Not serious enough.

What this healer shared with me that day helped me to reframe those feelings. Instead of feeling defective, I was able to realize that my feelings were a bit like a carbon monoxide detector alerting me to something of concern in my environment.

I have mostly stayed off social media over the holiday break, in need of a major reset in that area of my life. I didn’t post, but I did lurk just a bit when the boredom and monotony of a “vacation” in pandemic times was too much to bear. Like many of you, I feel like I’m living in the really not funny version of Groundhog Day, and that holds true of our work in higher education as well.

The anti-online learning rhetoric is once again reaching a fever pitch. Again. And again.

We’ve talked at length about the differences between emergency remote teaching and carefully designed and taught online teaching. That said, even when we’re talking about the latter, I have implored people to remember that no matter the modality, we’re teaching and learning in a global pandemic. To blame remote learning and online learning for the trauma responses born of the pandemic is ludicrous. And yet.

The governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, recently referenced the “failed experiment” of remote learning. In Massachusetts, the Department of Education and Secondary Learning has banned remote learning.

Does this remind anyone else of the plot of Footloose?

For those of us who have been working in online learning for decades, it’s a lot to stomach. Our work laid the foundation for the massive pivot that kept schools and colleges running in the spring of 2020 (and now again in the Omicron wave). Our work is part of the reason that families were able to stay connected through Zoom holidays and baby showers and birthday parties. Our work has and will continue to democratize education.

One of the best things I’ve read about this whole mess over the past two years is Sabyn Javeri’s essay, “How Remote Learning Subverts Power and Privilege in Higher Education.” Our work threatens the status quo, and I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that people in positions of power are going to fight like hell to try to end that threat.

But climate change is not going anywhere in the foreseeable future, and these deadly shifts in our environment are going to demand more flexible learning modalities, not less. Banning remote and online learning is like trying to stop teenagers from dancing. The anti-online learning crowd is going to lose this battle. That said, they’re not going to surrender anytime soon. Which is why it’s imperative that we take care of ourselves in the meantime.

Don’t let their rhetoric and foolish decisions demoralize you. When you feel like you want to throw in the towel, when you wonder if you’re somehow defective for feeling so frustrated, when you feel like you are one of the lead characters in Don’t Look Up, imagine that you’re hearing a beeping sound in your head. That’s your dehumanizing energy detector going off. It’s alerting you to something in your environment. Take a deep breath, notice what set off that alarm, and carry on with the critically important work that is going to be increasingly necessary in the coming decades.

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Karen Costa

I write about higher education. Here for my work through 100 Faculty, LLC, supporting faculty, staff, and student success.