Provocation: Academic Taskscapes, Learning Ecologies, and the Pandemic

I’d like to begin my provocation by framing the material conditions of digital technology against the backdrop of remote learning during the pandemic, specifically in reference to Smale’s and Regalado’s Digital Technology as Affordance and Barrier in Higher Education. In particular, I think it’s important for us to consider how the shutdown of CUNY’s physical infrastructure has forced students to create new “taskscapes” for themselves as part of their remote learning, presumably repurposing domestic spaces into sites of technological access and academic coursework. Since these challenges are heightened for CUNY students, who must frequently navigate the close quarters and socioeconomic conditions of NYC living, I’d urge us to unpack the complexities of domestic taskscapes in terms of how “multiple actors may be simultaneously engaged in creating different kinds of meaningful spaces in the same place, creating the possibility of conflict over who can define how space in particular locations is used” (15). What’s especially striking to me about this perspective involves how students must juggle their academic and domestic identities in ways that restrict not only their technological access and sense of focus but also their authentic means of participating in academic coursework.

I wonder, for instance, about students who might feel disincentivized from bringing their full selves to in-class work for fear of how their contributions might overlap with their domestic relationships. These concerns come to a head when students hesitate to air sensitive content in class discussion due to their close proximity with surrounding homelife. I encountered precisely this issue when tasking my students with a literacy narrative assignment in which they were to narrate their experience acclimating to the conventions of a given discourse community; and one of my students expressed interest in writing about their encounters with the LGBTQ+ community despite having yet to come out to their parents. Knowing that others were also planning on discussing sensitive content in their literacy narratives, I tried to better support student discretion by altering the peer-review context for the assignment from small-group discussion to asynchronous writing. But this experience was a wake-up call for me – one that I try to bear in mind each time I sit down to design lesson plans and homework assignments that might hypothetically invite delicate lines of inquiry and/or self-reflection from my students.

Given the constraints of remote learning in how students navigate domestic spaces to create academic taskscapes for themselves, I’d also like to highlight the value of using digital technology to foster multiple points of entry for class participation, often in ways that expand beyond large-group verbal discussion. On the one hand, as John Warner discusses, the so-called customized learning of adaptive software clearly stands at odds with this move to agile learning ecologies, serving instead to enclose students within a banking model of education bent on standardized modes of trial-and-error memorization. On the other hand, as Ugoretz writes, productive digression in discussion forums (and surely elsewhere) may “facilitate a process whereby students may make new and original connections arising from their own thinking and discovery processes” (2). Importantly, productive digression also invigorates the sort of interest-driven learning that runs parallel to responsive teaching, enabling a fluid mode of instruction that accords itself with the emergent needs and preferences of our students throughout the semester.

I feel strongly about the prospect of designing agile learning ecologies with the digital technology of our remote classes, if only because the domestic barriers of taskscapes are largely unknown to us as instructors, yet greatly encroach upon the academic coursework of our students. I would therefore encourage each of us to negotiate this discussion so as to better understand the current taskscapes of students during the pandemic, while also imagining new pathways to knowledge and participation in how we facilitate learning in both online and in-person contexts. For the most part, the technological barriers of remote education do not spring forth entirely novel obstacles in our teaching and learning practices; rather, these barriers intensify our awareness of preexisting difficulties in how we as educators afford our students meaningful learning experiences via digital technology. Accordingly, I feel as though we might devote discussion time to determining which ways the pandemic may bring to light otherwise invisible barriers related to our students’ use of technology as part of their newly formed taskscapes.

2 thoughts on “Provocation: Academic Taskscapes, Learning Ecologies, and the Pandemic”

  1. Hi Zach,

    I agree entirely with your statement that “for the most part, the technological barriers of remote education do not spring forth entirely novel obstacles in our teaching and learning practices; rather, these barriers intensify our awareness of preexisting difficulties”. I think that this pandemic has highlighted significant issues particularly those experienced as a result of inequities and access issues. A common problem at least in many k12 classes I have been privy to is the lack of attendance. This issue exists in-person classes but has become much more of a problem now that it requires consistent wifi and access to working devices. Many MS and HS students who would otherwise participate or attend class give up due to weak wifi or insufficient access to devices in their homes. I knew these problems existed pre-pandemic because I have applied hybrid models to teach prior to Covid-19, making most homework digital and many students would not do it because of their issues of access (or so they claimed). Because I am kind of a softee when it comes to grading, I would allow students to finish tech-mediated homework assignments in class when possible but with the pandemic, this is not so simple for obvious reasons. The pandemic has highlighted and further exacerbated in some ways, the issues of access to technology.

    I also appreciate your bringing up the point about how “students who might feel disincentivized from bringing their full selves to in-class work for fear of how their contributions might overlap with their domestic relationships”. One of the things I have become hyper aware of in working at the intersection of higher ed and K12 education is that the pandemic has essentially invited the teacher over to your house, and needless to say not all homes are ideal learning environments. I do know that when I run classes, the majority of students that have cameras and audio off but while some may just be “pretending to be there”, I know that others have good reason. At times I have tried to “require participation” by requesting audio or video be turned on only to find that there is a very good reason that a student does not want to share audio/video (i.e., there has been yelling/ family fight being picked up in the background noise for instance) so now I have decided that “chat window only interactions” are acceptable even though I cannot read them all quickly enough to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. But your point about relationships in the home also made me think of the fact that there are things that student may share with a teacher that they would not want their family to know about (e.g., I remember a student sharing with me something very personal about how they would their “gayness” would be a big problem if their parents found out, this topic came up during a physics lesson on “force” which which turned into a conversation about a bullying situation that occured right before my class- that is what happens when you open the class with “what do you think about when you hear the word ‘force’, apparently more kids think about the social meanings of force than the physical meaning). I do feel that the lack of in-person classroom space can deter students from sharing things that they might otherwise wish to share with certain teachers or classmates and that may be helpful in allowing them to express their themselves genuinely but I have no idea how to fix this issue remotely, and I am honestly afraid to try.

  2. So much to think about here, Zach. Like Shpresa (whose taskscape I seem to be tracing), the conflict between ‘domestic’ and ‘academic’ self also struck me in your post. It’s an incredible challenge. But I also have experienced it in a few moments since Spring 2020 as–wait for it–an “affordance” of sorts. The anecdote I’ll share is about a student of mine at CCNY from Fall 2020. She drew on her school-at-home situation to illustrate, during a discussion during our first week of class, the collision of her registers of language (school, home, and school-at-home). Her environment was safe enough for her to view it through an academic lens. Certainly not all students are so lucky. But in that case, it was a moment where [gestures at world] all this definitely helped make concrete the otherwise abstract but totally essential syllabus course learning objective we were looking at in that moment: to “use linguistic differences as resources”. What a resource that observation was for me and many others in class!

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