May 2020 Advocate: Face-to-face teaching must remain the core of higher ed.


Face-to-face teaching must remain the core of higher ed.

by Rika Yonemura-Fabian, Skyline AFT Chapter Co-Chair

The sudden switch we all made in March to remote education has turned the entire District inside out.  Just a few months ago, about 80% of our classes were taught face to face.  In this new-to-most-of-us online environment, we’ve been focusing on the question in front of us: “Are students learning?” Yet we also need to consider how this might forever alter the teacher-learner relationship that is the bleeding heart of education. How will this emphasis on online education erode faculty autonomy and discipline expertise, both of which are necessary to ensure we don’t become degree mills?

One Skyline faculty member recently articulated his concerns in an email correspondence:

One of the concerns is faculty will face additional pressure to convert more of our face-to-face courses to fully online.  First, the fact that all courses at all campuses are now being taught online might be taken as “proof” of effectiveness even if faculty doubt that online courses can ever match classroom experience, no matter how “good” the technology is.  Second, face-to-face sections will not be able to compete with online sections offered by other campuses if these now become widespread.  Third, if they do become widespread, the College itself will lose enrollments and courses unless it adapts to the trend.

Faculty have repeatedly observed that Deans suggest converting a course online when the enrollment is low. A recent strong push for fully online degrees at Skyline College (“Skyline NOW”) seems to show that this is part of a greater theme: Online classes increase “efficiency.” We don’t accept the premise, but even if it is true, we reject the notion that efficiency is the goal of education. We respectfully submit that learning is our purpose.

The Skyline faculty member’s analysis of the current crisis extends to an examination of the identity of higher education and educators. He has experience with Canvas and is comfortable using it for his classes. He finds it to be a well-designed and useful tool, and definitely a big improvement from WebAccess.  But that’s all it is, he emphasizes: A tool. The technical and design aspects of migrating course materials onto a learning management system is not the same as teaching the materials– a distinction that administrators, who are not working directly with students, seem oblivious to. Knowing how to utilize a tool is only one of many elements that makes good craftsmanship. However, what provides her/his expertise is not the tool itself, but the human being. All the training on how to use an LMS has been helpful to manage the emergencies, but we need to talk about how to better apply our accumulated expertise in teaching, classroom facilitation and all the emotional work we do with students to the technological tools.

What we hear in the concerned faculty member’s email is a manifestation of what some of us believe should be our unified message to the administration and those who are running the system. Face-to-face teaching by a subject expert should remain the irreplaceable core of higher education. Watching videos, going to chat rooms, listening to recorded audio, etc. can be useful supplements, but are not a substitute. And students have the right to quality, human interactions as the medium of learning. This is what contextualizes knowledge for students: meaningful relationships with the teacher and with their peers. Distance Education has its place—but as a supporting role.