Compassionate Pedagogy & Learning Technology
Among all the crises currently impacting our University, from the climate crisis to the cost of living crisis to the casualisation crisis and pension crisis, there is another which is often left out of the conversation. I would term this a crisis of compassion, a natural offshoot of the systemic burnout (see link below) which has been explored more and more in recent months by journalists, doctors, and researchers alike. When we are struggling to get by, to survive, for long enough, we begin to sacrifice compassion and kindness, because capitalism tells us that these are auxiliary parts of our lives instead of human necessities.
Students are facing a similar crisis. Satisfaction levels are abysmal, the words “wellbeing” and “resilience” are bandied around with such reckless abandon that they hardly mean anything anymore, and crucially for me as a learning technologist, as a result of the pandemic, teacher-learner relationships are suffering.
Often from day to day I see small comments about generalised student behaviour, usually light-hearted and occasionally substantiated, and in the realm of learning technology, where I spend most of my working hours, this now and then turns to commentary on academic misconduct. When calls come in asking us to check up on an unusual test result on Learn or a strange similarity report on Turnitin, the queries tend to take the shape of “can you prove this student cheated?”
When we lead from a place of suspicion instead (or at the exclusion )of asking why students might feel that their only option is cutting corners or violating academic policy, especially with the use of learning tech, I would argue that we create an atmosphere of policing that further exacerbates students fear to ask for help. Given the inequalities in teaching labour, there may not even be resources available to offer that help.
An argument sometimes arises in these conversations that the University is not designed to hold students’ hands and cater to their every need. I find this a rather funny assertion, as when we ask “why not?” the answer is usually “because it was not that way for me,” or “that is not the way the world works.” Yet, if we are always declaring the University a site of innovation and change, why should it stay the same as it was? Why should the University not be the place where we create a new way for the world to work? When our students leave and become managers, doctors, researchers, trade workers, or members of whichever profession or workplace they enter, surely we want them to advocate for more compassion, understanding, and support to those around them.
Graduate outcomes are not limited to salary points, they include things like adaptability, job satisfaction, and a host of qualitative markers which relate to emotional intelligence and community-mindedness. Compassion and what Jessica Zeller calls a “love ethic” are not superfluous. One does not need to read far into theories of radical change to understand that love and care, especially for oneself, is a revolutionary act.
The bottom line is, when we ask most of these questions, such as why do we design things like this? there are often two (honest) answers: because we’ve always done it that way, and because it helps us reach certain metrics of finance, rankings, etc. Neither of these have anything to do with the state of students or staff. The opportunities that learning technology and other digital education praxis offers us, from enhanced knowledge co-creation to more flexible, blended course design to more radical techniques like ungrading, are impossible to ignore. I believe they will become the norm. We have a chance now, in this moment of crisis, to become active participants and even leaders in this innovation, to help shape the future instead of holding it back, and I hope we take it.