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Floating on the ‘cloud’ or living in the material world`? Teaching online in the time of Covid

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 16 February 2022

Lesley Gourlay.

At the beginning of the pandemic, schools and universities were forced to ‘go online’ at short notice. We often refer to this as ‘virtual learning’, but is that really a good description? We think about the internet as something separate from the ‘real world’ we see in front of us, full of objects and people. The language used to describe it suggests this too – we talk about ‘the cloud’ and ‘the ether’, giving the idea that the online world is a special place, free from the messiness of the material world.

However, the reality of ‘online learning’ is also part of the that world. Computers, laptops and smartphones are objects, and we work with them in ‘real life’ settings. During the pandemic, millions of people had to set up and use digital devices at home for work or study. As we discovered, the experience of this was not like floating on a cloud or flying through the ether.

In 2020, a group of researchers in the IOE’s Department of Culture, Communication and Media conducted the ‘Moving to Online Teaching and Homeworking’ study. We interviewed 32 academic and professional services staff from across UCL about their experiences of working from home during the first lockdown in England. We also asked them to take a photo or draw a picture to represent their experience. One of the participants sent me this picture, which shows his ‘home office’ set up. This ramshackle construction of a table and box was needed, as he was suffering from a painful neck from looking down at the laptop. He is in a domestic space, and has been joined by his cat.

One of the participants sent me this picture

Across the study, we heard stories about how the lecturers struggled with cables and chargers, worked at kitchen tables, gave talks standing in front of a curtain rigged up in the bedroom, sat in the baby’s nursery to write emails, took turns to use different part of the house with partners and family also working and study at home.

They improvised and cobbled together equipment and makeshift arrangements, surrounded by families and all the complexity – or even chaos – of their home lives. Participants spoke about how they ‘performed’ professionally teaching via Zoom video calls while also looking after children, and sometimes only just keeping domestic chaos ‘out of shot’. They also spoke about the stress and exhaustion of that time. Online teaching was time-consuming, and very hard to achieve while juggling multiple home commitments.

Brief talks for students which would normally be delivered in person, now took hours to prepare and film in advance. Technical problems occurred frequently, and some participants spoke about how they felt exposed and under pressure to produce very high-quality online videos. Research work suffered as a result, as the time required to keep up with the demands of online teaching overwhelmed some of these colleagues.

Inequalities were stark – those with large comfortable houses and home offices had a reasonably smooth transition, compared to early career academics living in house shares with no work space. Women reported the stress of childcare and home-schooling. Overall, the study revealed the many hidden struggles going on ‘behind the screens’, and rooted in the mess and chaos of the everyday material world. Digital devices and technology were tangled up, sometimes quite literally, with the mundane stuff of the domestic sphere. In this respect, neat, slick, easy, futuristic notions of ‘virtual learning’ seem like fantasies. ‘Virtual learning’ is always material.



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