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www.digitalcultureandeducation.com | June 24, 2020
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Online education during COVID-19

Social distancing arising from COVID-19 forced educational institutions across the U.S. to shift instruction online. Zoom being the primary platform, classes have become video meetings, with students and instructors adopting content and engaging in discussions in Breakout Rooms. While Zoom provides opportunities for bottom-up discussions and reflection that transcend content delivery, there is little scope to compute and represent ideas other than through group discussion. Moreover, the monetization of Zoom, and the process of harvesting data from users to sell to third parties (Collins, 2020) calls into question the value systems associated with its use in a COVID-afflicted world. There is a fine line between using technology to give impetus to a wider capacity for interaction, and as a method for exacting control over users. In classrooms, technological control fosters a climate in which resources crafted by educational companies (Pearson, SAGE), are disseminated one-dimensionally via Zoom and other platforms from teachers/experts to students, who cognize knowledge as absolute rather than reflecting critically.

Stress on content delivery, rather than avenues for democratic online discussion comes as no surprise. Since the earliest efforts to integrate new information technologies into formal educational initiatives, online education has focused on efficiently providing knowledge to large swathes of learners, the emphasis being on breadth instead of depth (Peters, 2002). This leaves little scope for learner-instructor discourse leading to knowledge creation. Creating classrooms where students cannot “meet” to create distributed knowing ignores the potential for critical discourse (Tait, 1989). Social disconnection becomes a barrier to learning (Muilenburg & Berge, 2005), and results in increased attrition (Phirangee & Malec, 2017).

While a large body of research articulates the collaborative potential of educational technology (Stahl, 2010; Lakkala et al., 2009; Glassman, 2016), resistance towards incorporating bottom-up learning to meet individual needs exists owing to accumulated emphases on a top-down educational paradigm (Macrine, 2017). Proponents of bottom-up learning in face-to-face educational settings such as Dewey (1916) assert that coalescing scientific and everyday concepts through collective deliberation leads to knowledge creation (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2003; Hakkarainen & Paavola, 2009).  This fits within Habermasian (1989/1991) critical theory which posits that communicative rationality can create ideological and pragmatic outcomes through collective agency between individuals within a community. The same applies to educational technology.

When online education becomes top-down, technology becomes a controlling force. A top-down framework tends towards a capitalistic mass-model, helping big-tech corporations mine consumption patterns (like Facebook, for example) (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018). With COVID-19, the scope for technology giants to trace our every move becomes even more salient. The idea of a “Screen New Deal” for education seems realistic, but potential for infiltration of big tech corporations into everyday civic life risks offering avenues for the sanitization of our consumption and construction of information (Klein, 2020). In educational environments, where civility and chaos can be balanced, incorporating bottom-up learning into existing frameworks allows for both individual and collective agency towards solving problems, creating projects, and generating insights (Tilak & Glassman, in press). Processes are guided by users in these learning communities, rather than through one-dimensional resources/guidelines.

In this essay, we outline some ideas offered by Marcuse (1941) and Habermas (1989/1991) related to the relationships between technology and society to understand how individual and collective ways of using technology can be integrated to encourage critical thinking in online classrooms. We then provide evidence for the use of capitalistic, top-down pedagogical methods during COVID-19, and conclude by suggesting alternative designs that might facilitate a dual-layered online education by combining tools for top-down resources and convivial  (Illich, 1973) discussions.

Marcuse’s technological rationality and the reformulation of technis

Much of the Frankfurt School’s critical theory examines the instrumentality of technology, or its capacity for control, inhibiting users from autonomously developing new ways of thinking.  Marcuse expresses these concerns (Feenberg, 1996) and claims technology can organize social relationships. During Marcuse’s scholarship, the German National Socialist movement promoted using emerging technologies for war, labor, and even propaganda to exert authoritarian governance (Marcuse, 1941). During the following epoch, TV and radio were usedto manipulate public opinion, resulting in fragmentation of the social world based on political interests; influencing discussions within smaller, private contexts (Khan, 2009) to limit what is considered as “correct”, and favor predominant ideologies telecast through these mediums.

Image 1: A one-dimensional online education can have pervasive impacts on both teaching and learning.

With the rise of computers in the 1990’s, we entered an era in which open communication with technology, and capitalistic control exacted by corporate bodies co-exist, representing opposing online ecologies. Marcuse (1941) portends such tension, and notes that technology can both subordinate, and encourage critical reflection and liberation; providing a lever for democratization. The machine process is just one embodiment of human rationality. When technology moderates human interactions, it risks controlling social systems, leading to what Marcuse referred to as cultural standardization (Marcuse, 1941). He provides the example of a person in their car, whose commute is influenced by cultural production (e.g. parking spaces, signs, and advertisements), rendering decisions as semi-spontaneous responses to these cues, and free thought less imperative. In intent, this aspect of technology can be viewed as efficiency-inducing. However, technological rationality can cause humans to lose their ability to abstract knowledge from their own experience and create insights transcending observation. Instead, they adhere to systems and social cues allocated to them.

Applying this to education (for example, to examine platforms and resources designed by Pearson and Zoom), we see how organizations often provide resources for mere uptake. These fit within Marcuse’s idea of technology as a tool for the one-dimensional (hu)man. Passing down knowledge/resources in a top-down funnel (Tilak & Glassman, in press) mirrors industrialized distance education, where students have limited capacity for critical reflection (Tait, 1989). Such learning is an extension of a capitalistic higher education adopted during late modernity (Fleming, 2009). Interactions within these communities are largely trivial, rather than convivial.

The use of Zoom or Google Classroom as dominant instructional platforms exemplifies this model. Platforms presently used provide settings amendable to instructors delivering content in a top-down manner. Hurdles to collective sense-making are troubling as communities navigate unprecedented times, with their social and educational ecologies colonized by corporate entities.  The effect of this capitalistic use of e-learning to understand user behavior and fragment ideologies has pervasive effects on learning and education, since its impact on how society ideologically organizes itself are pronounced (Lagemann, 2000). Learning, viewed through the critical thinking lens, involves the imbibition of scientific concepts from instruction, and their social re-externalization through the lens of everyday experience, leading to knowledge creation (Vygtosky, 1987). According to Marcuse, facilitating the bottom-up use of technology requires the creation of new tools, allowing for non-hierarchical discourse within social groups rather than control exercised by authoritative figures.

We embrace Marcuse’s reformulated technological rationality, but suggest that his vision for redesigning technology is but one aspect of facilitating liberation through its use. Human agency must be directed towards a constructivist use of educational technology. This is where the integration of Habermas and Marcuse’s theories show hope for a new online education. In the next section, we will outline Habermas’ ideas, and situate both technological rationality and communicative rationality within a constructivist framework, which can facilitate critical reflection in online classrooms.


Combining Habermas & Marcuse: A dual-layered paradigm for online education

When examining Marcuse’s (1941) arguments about a new technological rationality involving the use of technology by social groups, one can draw strong links with Habermas’ later developed communicative rationality. According to Habermas (1989/1991), communication directed towards achieving consensus between varied interlocutors allows for critical thinking. When members of a community engage in ideological exchange, a rigorous process mediated by language and practical discourse can emerge (Habermas, 1989/1991). Forces of cultural production can fragment opinions, and limit the outcomes of discourse. When recommendation systems power the popular culture with which we engage, discussions revolve around the hottest topics/films/tabloids rather than insights from shared reflection. This idea of control emerged in the mid-1900’s, when radio and television influenced interactions, consumer culture and political ideologies (Khan, 2009). Control leads to instrumental rationality, where individuals in private contexts merely adopt content provided by powerful interlocutors. Instrumental rationality is similar to Marcuse’s (1941) technological rationality, which can affect humans even when they get in their cars and go about their everyday lives.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, most higher education/K-12 settings are facilitating classes on platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom. While there are opportunities for small group discussions using breakout rooms, these platforms lack opportunities for learners to record ideation processes visually, as idea-maps, or in discussion forums, to allow the free referencing of ideas within a learning community. Zoom was recently accused of underhandedly removing codes and sending data to third parties like Facebook (Collins, 2020), perpetuating a cycle that commodifies consumer data to mold consumption and ideation. A capitalistic technological rationality leaves students to be much like Marcuse’s (1941) one-dimensional (hu)man; comforted and blinded by technology.  One-dimensionality could have deep implications for learners (and society at large), who may become passive consumers of knowledge, unable to engage in collective sense-making. What Habermas (2006) posits, apart from inherent awareness of cultural production and control, is change in human agency towards using media. He identifies the potential for open online interactions, but cautions against corporations that dominate the Internet and fragment public opinion.

Even highly democratic online communities may show propensity for chaos and incivility. A good example is the r/FindBostonBombers subreddit, created in response to the Boston marathon bombings. While threads on Reddit diversify easily, and facilitate critical reflection between individuals of varied competence, members of this community wrongly accused innocents of the bombings. This led Reddit to issue an official apology, while alluding to the rhetorical construction of their platform (Potts & Harrison, 2013). While other popular networking sites like Twitter can create bottom-up communities, they show lenient moderation (Smith et al., 2014). The precarity between chaos and civility in open online environments makes it interesting to consider how interactions would function in settings with stronger guidelines for civility, like classrooms. Moderation of discourse by experts, and direction of common interests towards open-ended goals can help shepherd human agency with technology towards communicative rationality. Such agency becomes an important requirement as online education emerges as the new norm. Critical thinking becomes harder to achieve as proximal boundaries between peers and instructors grow wider owing to social distancing.

To implement educational practices allowing both uptake of knowledge from resources and open-ended collaboration, we suggest integrating Marcuse’s and Habermas’ ideas of redesigning technological apparatus, and communicative competence with media to facilitate its democratic use. ­­Prior to providing our suggestion for a dual-layered paradigm for online education, we provide evidence demonstrating the prevalence of top-down instruction predominating in online education during the era of social distancing.


Evidence of a top-down, capitalistic paradigm in post-modern online education

Due to the unprecedented nature of COVID-19, there is little current literature addressing the nature of e-learning in this time of crisis. The migration to remote settings transpired rapidly, giving teachers limited time to adopt distance learning best practices. In a New York Times piece overviewing teacher reports of distance learning during COVID-19, one teacher noted:

“I feel as though I am attempting to drive on a road that I am simultaneously paving while also following a paper map.” (Rae, 2020)

Environmental inhibitors also exist, with teachers struggling to be heard over their air conditioners, navigating technical difficulties, feeling disconnected from students, and shortening classes to promote asynchronous learning on students’ own time. Students with access to technology call into meetings with instructors to discuss progress before returning to individualized learning plans comprised of videos, content-review, worksheets, and app-based games rather than open-ended tasks requiring sustained critical reflection. Research findings indicate that lower satisfaction arising from social disconnection results in poorer learning outcomes (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005; Phirangee & Malec, 2017).  

Image 2: As teachers navigate the online educational landscape, they navigate a host of issues, both pedagogical and environmental.

Design can moderate the nature of interactions within educational settings and whether students approach learning in a meaningful manner (Jonassen et al., 1999). As administrators, teachers, students, policymakers, and entrepreneurs scramble to migrate learning online while addressing issues of equity for families struggling to gain access to the new-normal of remote learning, little time is given to teachers to integrate bottom-up pedagogy into instruction. Teachers with lower digital literacy, and whose place-based classroom settings were more top-down in nature continue to utilize these methods online.

What is more, technologists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are leveraging COVID-19 to reimagine educational landscapes, touting technology as a panacea of educational remediation in spite of parent and teacher reports expressing dissatisfaction with distance learning experiences. Spearheading this movement is former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, who has $5.3 billion in holdings in Google’s parent company (Alphabet), and advises congress on research and development needs related to Artificial Intelligence. Schmidt was appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo to lead the panel of policymakers reimagining New York’s post-COVID reality (Strauss, 2020).

 Just the day before appointing Schmidt, Cuomo announced a landmark partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to develop “a smarter education system” (Klein, 2020). Placing technology entrepreneurs at the forefront of imagining future educational ecologies tends towards the top-down capitalistic funnel that critical theorists fear. While educational stakeholders continue to decry the existing distance education landscape, policymakers and entrepreneurs collaboratively prescribe top-down big tech-based platforms as the gold standard for future use. It’s important to pose how democratic this future vision will be, who is designing this future, and what student competencies are being cultivated.

Migration to online learning is unfolding in concerning ways in the wake of COVID-19. Educational stakeholders question its efficacy. However, strategies exist, at least in early stages, offering opportunities to foster technological and communicative rationality. The next section of this essay outlines our suggestions for bottom-up online learning ecologies.


Open-Source Educational Processes: Individual and collective online learner agency

We suggest a dual-layered online education involving redesigning platforms (Marcuse, 1941), and crafting activities that direct learner agency towards collectively curated goals, mirroring the ideas of educationists such as Dewey (1916), and critical theorists like Habermas (1989/1991). We aim to create a new form of technological rationality, envisioned by Marcuse (1941), based on tools offering opportunities for cognizing knowledge and its critique through communicative discourse (Habermas, 1989/1991). Our approach is based on Open Source Educational Processes (OSEP) (Glassman, 2016). In our framework, learners can make use of the functional aspects of technology and resources in their provided form, but also communicate to craft advanced insights and projects based on this surface level content knowledge.

OSEP is an online education framework that seeks to avoid treating class as a “cathedral” where knowledge is imparted as absolute, and instead treats class as a “bazaar,” wherein ideas are discursively exchanged like precious commodities of collective value (Kuznetcova & Glassman, 2020). With the post-modern Internet tending towards open forums, there is propensityfor using such strategies in classrooms. We suggest that tapping into these opportunities to allow for both the uptake of expert-driven knowledge and lateral exchange between peers can create democratic online learning environments.

Such learning spaces capture both Marcuse’s and Habermas’ ideas for the structural reformulation of the public sphere through technology.  In our framework, top-down resources, guided notes and video-lectures provide impetus for meaningful discussion and knowledge construction. Collective action on these resources can help students create new knowledge, and engage in critical thinking as a community. This dual-layered learning assumes individual and collective involvement, allowing both technological rationality (individual use of platform functionality to cognize knowledge) (Marcuse, 1941) and communicative rationality (directing agency towards using technology to meet shared goals, and creating knowledge through discourse) (Habermas, 1989/1991).

Layer 1- Top-down resources

These resources include guided notes, Zoom lectures/ pre-recorded instruction, and resources that students may use to evaluate and expand content knowledge or complete homework assignments. This forms the traditional “cathedral” or top-down portion of our online classroom toolkit. Students cognize the knowledge provided to them, and use it as a foundation for critical discourse. This layer of our Open Source Community allows students to engage with knowledge using technological rationality (Marcuse, 1941; Feenberg, 1996) in a one-dimensional manner, and gain familiarity with concepts before the creation of new knowledge. This is only one part of the process to facilitate convivial (Illich, 1973), meaningful interactions in online classrooms.

Layer 2- Open Source Community

The second layer to our framework involves using OSEP to create a discursive bazaar, allowing critical discourse. Zoom does allow synchronous group discussions.  However, adding discussion forums or blogging platforms that permit students opportunities to pose questions, post weekly narratives, and exchange direct messages can help learners access peer knowledge freely, and also critique it (synchronously and asynchronously) through comments, links, and wikis, facilitating a pragmatic process to meet shared goals. We also suggest addition of platforms that allow Toulmin diagram like Mind-Maps (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 2003; Lakkala et al., 2011) to visually represent knowledge in tandem with such forums to keep track of ideas and progress towards the achievement of classroom objectives. Shared goals established non-hierarchically by the community can vary from being research papers to virtual projects built collectively.

Figure 1 - Our suggestion for a dual-layered online education.


Our suggestions for hybrid practices embrace both Marcuse’s (1941) technological rationality (top-down resources from Zoom, Pearson), and Habermas’ (1989/1991) communicative rationality (discursive online environments).  With COVID-19, existing online education platforms present barriers to fostering critical reflection due to the one-dimensionality of content provision. Fitting within a capitalist model (Klein, 2020), this leads to a focus on efficiency, greater revenue, and wider reach, rather than meeting individual needs and encouraging critical reflection.

A cross-disciplinary approach integrating critical theory and educational psychology provides a sociopolitical critique, along with ways to manifest change based on such critique through pragmatic efforts. Here, we provide an overview of the implications of the present online learning paradigm, crafted in response to COVID-19, and suggest the use of less hierarchical platforms to direct learning towards discourse, which critical theorists mark as the harbinger of critical consciousness. With online learning becoming the norm, fostering critical thinking in technology-supported classrooms is a salient need we can attain by balancing individualistic/instrumental and collective/communicative learning and instructional methods.


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Shantanu Tilak & Logan Pelfrey (Department of Educational Studies, Educational Psychology, The Ohio State University)

(Source: https://www.digitalcultureandeducation.com/reflections-on-covid19/online-education-during-covid-19?rq=shantanu%20tilak)