“Online teaching” is a really bad idea whose time has come, thanks to the coronavirus

I’m about to teach my first online class, since NYU has abruptly cancelled all in-person classes, requiring faculty to teach “remotely,” at least until March 27, when they’ll decide whether to do it this way for the rest of the semester.

This may or may not protect us from infection, but it is certainly a big drag for my students and myself, as, this term, I’m teaching two film courses, which each meet once a week, to discuss a movie that the students have watched at least twice prior to class—discussion of clips that we all watch together, on a screen that’s fairly big. That shared experience, in person, of excerpts projected in a format much larger than a TV or laptop, is now over, at least for now, to be replaced by the disembodied, glitch-ridden cyber-simulacrum of “online learning,” with each clip (barely) visible in miniature. (Ironically, today I’m teaching 2001, which, while it will lose its visual majesty, reflects uncannily on how I now have to teach it.)

So much for my own pedagogical complaint. There’s a far larger problem with this fearful shift to “online learning” at ever more universities and colleges—as Aaron Barlow notes astutely here. This shift may be merely fearful, or prudent; but it’s likely also to be calculated to impose a change that faculty from coast to coast have been resisting for the last few years: the disembodiment of higher education via MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). 

While this high-tech “alternative” to traditional classroom teaching has its uses, it’s worrisome not just because it shrinks and flattens the experience of teaching and/or learning, but, first of all, because the MOOC is profit-driven—run by private companies (some of them shady companies) paid, indirectly, by our students, and used because it’s cheaper for the university than maintaining classrooms, and also enables bigger classes, mostly to be taught by our already-burdened adjuncts and contract faculty. That practice would generate more revenue—as would the eventual replacement of many faculty by pre-recorded lectures, whereby the professoriate would have its skills and planning stolen and exploited by the corporation, just as student athletes are exploited by their schools. And, as well, online teaching can be all too easily surveilled, as is more than likely in this era of Big Brother 2.0 (or Big Sister). 

All in all, this is a bad idea, if it’s not a temporary measure to prevent, or slow, the spread of this mysterious disease.


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