Online Pedagogy and Digital Strikes

12 March 2020

Due to the ongoing scare of coronavirus in the US, many universities across the country have made the decision to switch from in person classes to classes being digitally mediated in their entirety. The timing is convenient for UC administration, as they’re using preemptive measures to curb the spread of the virus as a tactical response to the ongoing graduate students strikes. This blog post comes in two parts: the first on the role of technology in pedagogy (and why it should not take over completely), the second on digital strikes and picket lines in virtual spaces.

Part 1: Online Pedagogy

This isn’t a new conversation, over the last decade there have been increasing moves by institutions to offer online degrees, beginning with online-only (generally for-profit, predatory) institutions to well-established (more reputable) institutions beginning to offer the same degrees via online classrooms. Now as universities are pushing all classes to be taught online as an emergency plan in response to coronavirus, this conversation is catching more public attention, and to many the questions is simply “why do physical institutions still exist when so much is available online?” This is a fair question, but it assumes that the role of an educator is simply to convey information effectively. So to address it, so to respond appropriately we really need to take a step back and consider the role of a university education and how students can best be served in getting that education.

Put simply, the main purpose of a higher education is to learn how to think critically and to learn how to learn. Gaining a variety of informational knowledge goes along with that of course, because it is important to have field-specific knowledge, but effective teaching uses that knowledge to train students in pertinent ways to think about that information. This is most apparent in liberal arts degrees, which is the reason graduates holding those degrees are so much more employable post-graduation than their STEM counterparts. But even in fields like computer science, students are not simply taught the inner workings of computing systems, they are trained to conceptualize and design those systems in ways that are efficient with respect to some set of metrics and how to be cognizant of design limitations.

What is it, then, about a physical classroom space that facilitates this, where virtual space does not? Why did I decide to attend every class meeting during undergrad when most of my professors recorded their lectures and posted them immediately after class (and made every lecture from previous courses available)? There are a number of answers, most of which boil down to feedback. Educators need to be able to adapt to student needs as they go and that requires being able to see what those needs are. It’s the same problem as class sizes. A class of twenty students can be taught more effectively than a class of five hundred. Online classes are often suggested as solutions to those large class sizes, but in reality carry a remarkably similar set of problems with them.

Technology is going to be a part of the classroom, but we need to be critical of its place and it’s effective uses (and what uses are ineffective). I used recorded lectures like I did my textbooks, as supplemental materials to the course. I attended lectures, asked questions where appropriate, and used the recordings to review material and listen again where I was still confused. If after that I still didn’t understand the material I could go to office hours to ask questions (which I don’t think I need to say is much more effective face-to-face than via email). There are discussions to be had, of course, about how technology can be used as a supplement, but that’s a different discussion for a different time.

There is already an abundance of recorded lectures online, freely available, from reputable institutions. Students continue to pursue offline education because they gain more from that mode of instruction, and I haven’t even addressed the issues with accessibility (of which there are many). Moves to online-only classrooms diminish the value of a university education because the content can be gained for free, but the important qualities of that education are not freely available.

Part 2: Digital Strikes

Graduate students at UC Santa Cruz and their supporters have been on strike for a month leading up to the widespread panic surrounding the virus. Our main tactics have included withholding grades, teaching stoppages, picketing and campus disruptions, and blocking the entrances to shut down campus. Administration is using the switch to online courses to make these tactics ineffective. Physical disruptions obviously no longer have much use, but the administration has also directed professors to ask that students only submit assignments via the university’s online course portal. This is to circumvent the TA’s ability to withhold the grades by giving the professor direct access to all assignments. We’re thinking about what strike tactics to employ and how to adapt to these changes. Broadly, the tactics we’ve used have centered on attention and disruption, so the question at hand is how those tactics can be adapted into a virtual space.

Picket lines are, in a sense, a denial of service in a physical space. The trouble with the move to digital is that picket lines have protections under US law, where denial of service attacks are federal crimes. This isn’t to say that strikers can’t or shouldn’t resort to illegal tactics, just that not having the same legal protections brings an extra layer of risk to an already precarious situation. Uber and Amazon workers navigated this by staging a boycott, but this relies on solidarity and doesn’t leverage compliance from those who wouldn’t otherwise show solidarity. There is also the option of a virtual sit-in, which is where a large group of individuals ping a webserver to slow traffic. It is less sophisticated than a DDoS attack, but doesn’t meet a strict legal definition of DoS (however, that doesn’t mean those performing it can’t be tried for a DoS attack).

As far as digital attention, the folks running our strike campaign’s social media have done an A+ job. We’ve caught broad international attention, and have been receiving support from that attention. The limitation of digital attention in this strike is that we’re also relying on local attention. We’re relying on solidarity from undergraduates and faculty, especially now that the university is trying to remove our power to withhold grades, and it’s more difficult just to make our presence felt as a striking body when students don’t have to make eye contact with the picket line every day.

As the strike moves forward, we need to be able to employ disruptive methods to digitally-mediated classrooms. Some of those methods might take similar forms to the ones we’re using now, and some of them might be drastically different. It’s important that we respond effectively, not just for ourselves. This strike is historic for a number of reasons, and one more has been added to the list. As digital workplaces become more prevalent, what we do now is going to be looked to as a precedent for conducting digital strikes in the future.