Virtual Reality: Is This Education’s New Normal?

Hassan Merali // Columnist

Last March, a deadly pandemic seized the world and post-secondary education had to adapt its operations to new public health orders. We went from congregating on campus to learning at home, trading breakout discussions in classrooms for breakout rooms on Zoom. But now that B.C. aims to have everyone vaccinated by the summer, the government has told schools they can re-open campuses for the fall semester. With an end to lockdown measures in sight, we should examine how the pandemic trend of remote learning will play out long term in post-secondary education.

While some students have enjoyed the benefits of taking classes online—such as not having to commute and being closer to the comforts of home—others have been struggling. Some not only prefer learning in a physical classroom, they need in-person instruction to learn effectively. Staring at a screen all day is taxing on the body, and let’s not forget that some people lack the resources to do school online properly in the first place.

Not every part of going to school was able to be moved online. Some of the amenities students have access to when they’re on campus simply can’t be moved online. Others, like counselling and instructor office hours, are better when they’re accessed in-person. Although they’ve done the best they could, post-secondary institutions and student unions have struggled to fully replicate the recreational activities that make up campus life, activities that are a key part of the post-secondary experience.

One of the biggest lessons of this pandemic is how much people need the small, everyday in-person interactions that we all take for granted—small talk with acquaintances and classmates, opportunities to mingle and meet new people, hanging out in the same place as others.

This brings to mind a conversation I was a part of about e-learning a couple of years ago. A faculty member remarked that there was a lot of hype in the ’90s about free online college courses called Massive Open Online Courses. Pundits prophesied that they would be the end of brick and mortar educational institutions. That didn’t happen, remarked the faculty member, because young people want to meet and hang out with other young people. But that was many technological developments ago, before cell phones and social media and video chat.

Will we ever go back to fully in-person classes? Will it all be online, or perhaps a hybrid model of online/in-person attendance? Does it really matter which it is?

While online school has removed some barriers, it stands to deepen others. If there’s one thing industrialized countries have learned in the last decade of digital development, it’s that the Internet has not been the great equalizer that it was promised to be in the ‘90s. The inequities of our society are not mitigated by technology, they are exacerbated. Systemic racism, ableism, sexism, misogyny, and antagonism toward 2SLGBTQIA+ folks have made their way online, and are magnified by the networking effect of social media. Algorithmic biases perpetuate societal inequities and discrimination, and surveilling students in the name of academic integrity has worrying privacy implications.

Moving education online comes with its own dangers. Instructors will be expected to live stream or record their lectures, leading to adverse outcomes in education like it has for so many other fields where communications technology has proliferated. For example, students and institutions might start selecting instructors, consciously or unconsciously, based on how “telegenic” (read: hot) they are. Lectures will become media content, and instructors that are more exciting and entertaining are going to be more popular over others who aren’t. As with any platform, the most extreme content rises to the top.

A number of questions arise: Will video lectures be the intellectual property of the university, or will instructors own the rights to these videos? Will instructors be considered independent contractors, furthering the inequities of precarious sessional work by making teachers part of the gig economy? Will educational institutions be consolidated, or taken over by Big Tech? Will this impact unions and solidarity groups on campus?

Moving a significant part of school online for all students would be a mistake. In-person meetings are a fundamental aspect of the learning experience. There’s something about being in the same space as other people that immerses a person in an experience that can’t be replicated with technology—no matter how many advancements are made. Whether it’s being able to read body language or just the comfort of being close to others, we benefit from hanging out IRL. All of my best experiences at CapU have been on campus, hanging out with friends in the library or cramming for a test with classmates before an exam. I wouldn’t have gotten to meet any of the amazing people I’ve met or had any of the incredible experiences I’ve had at school had it been online.

As with every technological development, people will say that this is the new normal. Tech evangelists will argue that since we have the technology to do so, and it’s proven that it can be done, online learning should be a big component of school going forward. This is a fatalistic argument that relies on capitalism’s implicit drive to make everything cheaper and more “efficient.”

The truth of the matter is, normal is whatever we as a society normalize. There are many technologies humans have developed that we don’t use, or use sparingly, because we’ve decided the traditional alternatives are better. Moving school online just because we can prevents people from deciding how they learn and work. It’s up to us to fight back against the commodification, technologization, and bastardization of education. Despite all prophecies, the future is what we make it. The question remains: are we up for the fight?

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