On the complexity of change: Online—off-line in time of COVID-19

Set of the film “Good bye, Lenin” (Photo: DPA)
from https://www.thelocal.de/20190925/films-east-germany-legacy-east-germans-perceive-them

COVID-19: In many parts of the world, regions and institutions are in lock-down, venues of education, culture, and entertainment have been closed, people return to their homes and stay there, supermarkets have closed for a time because their shelves are empty, education administrators advocate the move from – what they call – face-to-face instruction to – what they call – virtual teaching online … I would like to talk a little about the latter two, calling them off-line and online:

This seems to be a good time to tell a story, one of my stories. So, why don’t you sit down comfortably, protect your back, don’t hunch over your reading device … this story might get a little longer. Because it is a story, I will give my best to refrain from weaving in scientific or theoretical references; I will leave the look through the theoretical lens for another time. Why can I do that? Our stories, interrelated narratives, anecdotes are not only complex in and of themselves, they are also a way to make sense of complexity (and sometimes chaos) around us or even in us.

Once upon a time in the last century, I was born in a tiny country that called herself Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Others called her East Germany or Soviet Occupation Zone. There was on-line and off-line even there and then.

Quite early on and also later, my mom would send me shopping with a list, which was off line on a small piece of paper. I would go and stand in line, ask the shop assistant for things from my list. My question never was: Could I have …? It was: Do you have …? And often the answer was: No.

My mom sent me shopping well before stuff was needed – so were many others or they went by themselves, when they were old enough. Mom seemed to know when and where yoghurt or toilet paper was in store. I would buy it then, so we had it at home when it was needed.

Signs on shelves often said: Take Only 2. And that was what I did – as did many others – I took 2, whether I had it on my list or not. It was cheap, and who knows what was to come, we might need it.

Shortages were frequent. One day, I was in a butcher’s. In stead of cold cuts and schnitzel, two small flower pots were on display. I asked whether there was anything behind the counter and was told that, no, everything was exported to make hard-currency cash for the COMECON economy. I did not buy a flower pot, because it was not for sale.

I had always thought that these were characteristics of a command economy with overwhelmed, partially educated, paranoid, underwhelming elderly men in government. The economy was not geared toward consumption; infrastructure and logistics were poorly funded and organized. Well more than 30 years later, I did not expect to see empty shelves in supermarkets …

Let’s move to the second part of my story. Let’s go online.

And then I went online. Occasionally. With the telephone. During my year abroad in Kaluga, Russia, I would go to the local post office. Waited in line. Was told to go into booth number 7. Picked up the receiver. And could talk to my mom in Germany. The line was neither stable nor clear, but we were both grateful about the marvels of technology – I was in the post office booth, she was at a neighbor’s house which actually had a landline telephone. We stayed in touch by whatever means available: telephone, letter (sometimes also given to somebody traveling back from Kaluga to East Germany), or small packages with treasured goodies, in my direction only.

In the early 1990s, I moved to England. Staying in touch with the family got easier. Phone bills were high, and connections were stable and from home to home.

And, I used Gopher and later Mosaic to go online with my office PC. The Internet had emerged, and I was showing students how to find a few German fairy tales or the odd Spiegel article (still hosted on a university main frame computer). In the computer language lab, we used a web page that I had written with a set of annotated links to all texts that I could find and that were in German, in addition to little programs stored on computer disks. Soon after, things came on CDs and had images and sound. Hypertext. The students and I still talked. A lot. We sat in front of the computer(s) and talked. We shared screens in one computer lab and talked. We put in floppy disks and talked. We all learned to type – even umlauts äöüßÄÖÜ – and talked in and about clear writing. We recorded ourselves on stand-alone PCs and listened to audio files and we talked.

In 2001, a few colleagues and I began to design an online course – one semester of learning German from scratch. And we used the telephone to exchange spoken texts and we talked. Students would pick up the phone, punch in a felt 273 different digits upon request, and speak their oral assignment into the phone. The sound file was magically streamed to the server, where I would see it seconds later, listen to it, take some notes, pick up the phone, punch in 273 digits, and record a response that was streamed to the student. I still remember the system’s name: VERA. Vera means hope and belief in a number of languages.

Since, my students and I have emailed, Skyped, built wikis, blogged, discussed and chatted by both writing and speaking, and Zoomed. And we talked both online and off-line. All the time. More than ever before.

Long story. And I have not told the half of it. But where is COVID-19? Apart from the two mentions at the very beginning? The pandemic, the precautions, and the social and individual reaction to the unfolding complex web of events have been here all along. It is the counterpoint and context to my story. And the story is the counterpoint to the complex and – at times – chaotic phenomena of the pandemic, as I am experiencing them here in Southern California, at work, and through the omnipresent media and public discourses. So, let me finish my story by talking about this week. And then I will spare you the theoretical lens. This time only; I will put it on for the next blog post.

I have watched the clip with Walter Ulbricht denying the plan to built the Berlin Wall, listened to rambling propaganda word assemblies of the East German swamp and establishment, heard Erich Honecker explain that green salad just needed to be washed and it would be radiation-free after the Chernobyl disaster, and saw and experienced empty shelves and the shortage of toilet paper in days long gone.
Until 2017, I had hoped that such ill-worded and ideologically biased government statements and speeches at such a low level were a thing of the past. Until this week, I was so sure that I would not see or stand in front of empty store and supermarket shelves, in the country where I live, again. Full disclosure: I have not been to a supermarket this week, but I could not avoid listening to friends and family who have and seeing pictures online.

Online, I have been researching and advocating the considered pedagogic use of digital technologies in education for the last thirty years. This week, it seems, everybody in education, abruptly asked to abandon their classroom, is talking about online learning, virtual teaching, blended, hybrid, asynchronous, … Why am I not relishing the moment? First, the words! A blend should only happen in a blender in the kitchen. It is bad enough, sometimes, if it is done to whisky or wine, inmho. It should not be done to people and with people, I believe. In the relevant literature, hybrid used to mean (until this week, it seems) having a course that was done partially face-to-face, partially online. How is that gonna work when all classes are moved off campus. And virtual teaching? Most professors believe they know what teaching means. Virtual means “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized.” So, I am asked to teach – virtually – and won’t be recognized for it? By whom?
For many educators who deep down have always believed that computers, digital media, and remote communication are either evil or at least vastly inferior to a close encounter, this change to education not in the classroom, lecture hall, or lab has come too sudden and was enforced from the top or forced upon them by adverse and unusual external circumstances. And I have come to believe, after being a student at the time of the Peaceful Revolution, that change better be gradual and voluntarily embraced by many to be sustainable.

Today, I am hoping that soon we are all going to come out of COVID-19 healthy, being again able to travel to different places without any fear, coming together in families, in small and large groups, and, if you enjoy that sort of thing, in huge gatherings, to have fun and a feeling of community. I am also hoping that online – teaching, learning, and talking – will finally be seen by many as what it is. Just another way of getting in touch with people, learning from one another and about one another. A way to communicate that is neither worse nor better than writing somebody a beautiful letter or chatting with somebody sitting next to them on the sofa or teaching a group in a comfortable classroom. It has always been more important to me that we talk with one another and learn from one another than through what channel and by what means we do this. It is up to us to learn how to use new(er) technologies and other means better. There is a tool for everything, but not everything is a hammer.

Especially in times of crisis or a pandemic, it is important to keep talking to one another truthfully and to keep learning.

2 thoughts on “On the complexity of change: Online—off-line in time of COVID-19

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