As K–12 schooling moves out of buildings and onto the internet, we know that profiteers and hucksters will promote a commodified vision of teaching and learning.
—Rethinking Schools, 2020, para. 7
Education systems across Canada are increasingly impacted by neoliberal reforms which impose a business model on education that rationalizes defunding and encourages privatization. In what political theorist Wendy Brown terms ‘the financialization of everything’, neoliberalism positions knowledge as a commodity, students as consumers, education as workforce training, and schools as businesses.
Education is a key target of the neoliberal project for two reasons: the market size and the capacity to foster critical, engaged citizens.1 These ideologically driven reforms ignore the purpose of education, and undermine the public system.
Neoliberal efforts to transform public education existed prior to the pandemic; however, the uncertainty of this moment has created openings to further these endeavors. Following the now familiar formula of disaster capitalism,2 neoliberal reformers have used the chaos created by the pandemic to advance their interests. In particular, this has happened through the sudden, necessary investments in EdTech and concomitant online learning. Historically, moves to advance online learning have been political and economic rather than pedagogical.
Historical context: behind the screens
Since the mid 2000s, EdTech companies and neoliberal reformers have challenged the relevance of brick-and-mortar schools. These challenges follow the neoliberal formula of fabricating a crisis and offering a solution; in this case, rhetoric is used to make unfounded declarations about the inadequacy of face-to-face classrooms in/ for the current economic and technological landscape.3 Simultaneously, EdTech (learning management systems, applications, and platforms) is offered as a convenient, ‘cost-effective’ solution to ‘modernize’ the education system through increased online learning.
However, as Farhadi states, online learning has less to do with a revolutionary transformation of education than it does “with the expansion of global capital markets and the neoliberal restructuring of education.”4 There is money to be made from the digitalization of education; EdTech is valued at $1 billion annually and represents one of Canada’s fastest growing startup sectors.5 Moreover, online learning is seen as an opportunity to redirect public money to private companies. Online learning requires that school boards increase public investment in private corporations through the purchase of devices, applications, platforms, learning management systems, and long-term licensing agreements.
Before a global pandemic required school boards across Canada to invest in EdTech and move online, online learning was not a popular option in the K-12 system. Online learning was neither provincially imposed nor widely adopted; rather, most often, high school students self-selected online courses to supplement their school schedules, or improve their grades. As a result, there is minimal research and literature in this area generally, and an utter lack of critical scholarship in the K-12 context specifically.6 There is no evidence from research that supports online education as a replacement for face-to-face teaching in the K-12 context.7
Despite the lack of research, investments in e-frastructure made through the pandemic are now being used to mobilize online learning across Canada. For example, in March of 2021, the Manitoba government prioritized a provincial remote-learning strategy, a bilingual online high school, and hinted at a provincial K-8 virtual school. In the same month, the government of Ontario renewed commitments to increase online learning. This, despite the fact that prior to the pandemic, the government’s proposal to mandate four online courses faced overwhelming opposition from parents, students and teachers.8
Efforts to advance online learning are occurring in the absence of research about its impacts. Currently, public discourse about online learning is largely informed by neoliberal reformers, big tech companies, investors and technology providers.9 Recognizing the dearth of critical research about the impacts of online learning on teachers and teaching, particularly in the K-12 context, we conducted a study in our province in 2020; the findings offer important counters to the celebratory rhetoric of ‘modernization’ and the propaganda issued by EdTech companies.
Through an interview-based study, Teachers’ Homework: Online Learning Through COVID19, we spoke to 14 teachers from across Manitoba about their experiences “pivoting” to an online environment. Within the one-hour semi-structured interviews, we explored how the move to online platforms through the pandemic impacted educators’ engagement with the curriculum, and their overall pedagogy. The teacher participants, of various grades and subjects, raised concerns about the impact of online learning on their profession/alism, on students, and on the larger project of education.
Three major themes emerged in the data.
Teacher participants felt deprofessionalized by:
• the lack of consultation. Choices surrounding technology and scheduling were made without their professional input.
• the functionality of the technology imposed on teachers. The platforms restricted, dictated and limited the participant’s capacity to engage with students, and with the curriculum.
Teacher participants felt demoralized by:
• their complicity in reproducing inequities. Teachers were unable to respond to the particular needs of their students.
• the erosion of relationships. Online, the participants found that they often resorted to methods and practices that did not align with their understanding of the purpose of education.
Teacher participants raised concerns about the ways in which online learning contributes to:
• the dehumanization of students. Absent body language and eye contact, and amidst technologically restricted interactions, teacher participants felt that they did not come to know their students.
• the disembodiment of learning. The teacher participants felt that the online platforms cut out an essential element of learning, the body.
We offer a more fulsome analysis of these findings below.
It’s severely impacted my relationship with students, you know. I don’t see their faces, I don’t always recognize the sound of their voice. I can’t identify their work by looking at it. I don’t know what they’re thinking. I can’t see facial expressions, so I don’t know how to read any of them anymore. I don’t know how to anticipate their needs. Like, I don’t have a sense of who they are.
—Participant, Riley, lines 489–493
The majority of the teacher participants in our study spoke of the ways that the functionality of online platforms influenced their practice, reducing their pedagogy to administrivia and management. Coerced and confined by technology, the participants adopted practices that did not align with their informed understandings of the purpose of education. Rather than spending time engaging with students, teachers filmed and edited videos, crafted communications, managed technology, and audited and surveilled students. Unbeknownst to many students, current technology offers analytic functions that track the number of times students have logged on, the duration, and the precise time they upload work.10 As Stephen Ball warns, the insidious managerialism, built directly into technology, recasts teaching as the regulation of students. In turn, professionalism is redefined by what can be measured and rewarded, rather than by reflection, principles and judgment.11 These neoliberal approaches supplant teacher knowledge and ethical responsibility with output and production. Moreover, they mistake automation for professionalism.
All of the teacher participants in our study stated that they had very little, if any, education specific to online teaching. This reflects a lack of understanding of the professionalism required in teaching generally, and of online teaching specifically. Online pedagogy requires new relationships, knowledge, and methodologies.
Teaching has historically been deprofessionalized, constructed as ‘natural’, conflated with femininity, and understood as an extension of the unpaid work of motherhood. These gendered constructions also impact the way teacher’s ethical concerns about online learning are addressed. As Santoro explains, “the feminization of teaching impacts the ability of teachers’ moral concerns to be heard as ethical claims, rather than simply self-interested forms of resistance.”12 The deprofessionalization (feminization), devaluing and dismissal of teachers is, part of the ongoing neoliberal formula to silence critique and mobilize privatization through increased online learning.
The desire to monetize public education requires that the professionalism of teachers be placed in doubt, that their interests be questioned, and that their unwillingness to embrace technology be associated with their reluctance to ‘modernize’. Yet, teachers in our study raised important ethical concerns about online learning that need to be heard before provinces further transform education.
I’m just another school course, on a device, which isn’t real….They have no real human connection to me, and so it’s easy to blow off and to ghost people that you don’t value. And to value someone, often comes from having meaningful in person interactions.
—Participant, Charlie, lines 377–380
The teacher participants in our study offered many critiques of online learning. In particular, they overwhelmingly spoke about the ways that it deepened inequities, abandoned students with exceptionalities, and curtailed critical analysis, deliberation and dialogue.
Overall, online learning limited or restricted relationships, particularly between students. Yet, students need meaningful interactions with people in their classroom community, not just “access” to materials.13 Relationships with classmates help to humanize issues of inequity, to foster empathy, and to encourage collective responsibility. With limited opportunities to connect, online learning is often reduced to the completion of individual assignments; this confuses credentialing with education and, in turn, inculcates individualism and competition.
Moreover, by emphasizing efficiency and replicability, online learning relies on the repetition and regurgitation of information, and the mechanization and technicization of knowledge—all of which encourages students to neglect criticality and simply produce and reproduce. This naturalizes neoliberalism, and ensures there are fewer critically oriented citizens. Neoliberalism targets education for this very reason.
Through transmissive pedagogy, particular knowledge is normalized—alongside passivity. If, as current literature suggests, the intent of education is to encourage critical and creative thinking, motivate student inquiry, foster relationships, develop problem solving skills, and practice discussion and deliberation, online learning in its current form misses the mark completely.
...the freaking Google Hangouts notification I think will be in my nightmares for the rest of my life where I want to help each and everyone of those kids, and the tyranny of that noise, and they make it seem they make it seem so efficient and so fluid. And it’s actually so awkward and time-consuming and restrictive.
—Participant, Jules, lines 206–209
The participants in our study spoke of the “hostility” of online education. They were haunted by: the constant interruptive beeps and notifications emanating from the platform; the persistent tech glitches; the technological control offered to the teacher; and the awkward group communications filled with reminders of “you’re muted”. This, they said, negates the humanity required in teaching and learning.
This was a persistent theme across the interviews, the way online learning dehumanized students and disembodied learning. EdTech developers position students as “users” and sources of data. As dataveillance increases, and the collection and analysis of student data becomes routine, student value is derived from the commodification of data assemblages.14 The data collected profits EdTech companies; however, it also alters student’s understanding of educational worth, of societal values, and of themselves. Students start to perform to please the indicators, and teachers come to see their students as data points.
Fundamental changes to education are being made absent of empirical research that supports wide scale adoption of online learning in the K-12 context, or that outlines sound pedagogical practices online. As Dr. Beyhan Farhadi bluntly states, ‘we know virtually nothing about online learning’. If the participants in our study are any indication, now is the time to pause, and further our understanding of the impacts of online learning before letting the robots into the schoolhouse.
Read the Winter/Spring 2022 edition of Our School/Our Selves here.
1 Ross, E. W., & Gibson, R. (2007). Introduction. In E.W. Ross & R. Gibson (Eds.), Neoliberalism and Education Reform (pp. 1–14). Hampton Press.
2 Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. New York: Macmillan.
3 Boyd, D. (2016). What would Paulo Freire think of Blackboard: Critical pedagogy in an age of online learning. The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 7(1), 165–186.
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8 Parker, L. (2020, March 9). Mandatory e-learning is a problem in Ontario high schools. The Conversation.
9 Williamson, B. (2020, April 1). New pandemic edtech power networks. Code Acts in Education.
10 Stommel, J. (2020, May 11). Love and Other Data Assets. https://www.jessestommel.com/l...
11 Ball, S. J. (2016). Neoliberal education? Confronting the slouching beast. Policy Futures in Education, 14(8), 1046–1059. https://doi.org/10.1177/147821...
12 Santoro, D. (2018). Demoralized: Why Teachers Leave the Profession They Love and How They Can Stay. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.
13 Protopsaltis, S., & Baum, S. (2019). Does online education live up to its promise? A look at the evidence and implications for federal policy. Center for Educational Policy Evaluation.
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