“Sometimes technology lets you be wonderful….” – transitioning education into the Digital World as a result of Covid-19

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Author: Maria Larrain MPhil/ PhD student UCL Anthropology

Fieldsite: UK

I must be honest; digital anthropology is not my area of expertise, but I have an interest in social media and how people acquire their knowledge through Facebook forums. My main interest is in medical anthropology. I am also a practising osteopath and a clinical educator of postgraduate students.

During the first couple of weeks, while I was trying to convert my osteopathic practice into a ‘telehealth’ service, in response to lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I felt I was in a sci-fi movie. Not only was I seeing some patients via video link, but I was refreshing my knowledge on spinal pathology from my computer whilst learning about SARS Cov-2 and protective equipment by watching videos on the WHO website. And all the while, asking Siri to change my music. It didn’t take long for me to feel sensory deprived of not doing my job, which entails close contact with people both physically and mentally. I could not help reflecting on what we have gained and what we have lost moving to the ‘digital world’ to keep us safe. Or would it be more correct to call it the ‘digital bunker’?

I was curious to know how this sudden transition had affected educators of tactile disciplines such as fashion and osteopathy. How did they adapt to taking education into the ‘digital world’ so quickly towards the end of the academic year, which is a crucial and busy time for educational institutions?

I interviewed Fabio Piras,  the course director of the MA in fashion at Central St Martins (CSM) and Francesca Wiggins, head of clinical practice at the University College of Osteopathy (UCO), to find out.

The last module of the UCL Culture public engagement course that I took part in was my first proper online educational experience. I was so impressed with the way that the course was delivered online that I interviewed the course leader Ben Littlefield as well. I wanted to know how, for me as a student, his team had managed to organise a novel but different, and nevertheless very rich, learning experience.

My son’s transition to online education as a year 12 student was similarly seamless. I know from friends that are homeschooling their young children it has been extremely stressful, as they are also trying to juggle working from home at the same time. However grateful people feel that they can work from the safety of their own homes, have a roof over their heads, access to technology and have managed to remain healthy, the effects of lockdown on the mental and physical health of each of us have taken its toll on us all.

This pandemic has revealed some staggering health inequalities in our society.  And even though we have witnessed some surprising possibilities in the digital world and technology providing a lifeline for some people, the digital divide has been evident too. Children are excluded from accessing online education. Currently, there is a fierce debate about children returning to school safely, but many children missing out on their education may have serious consequences for their future learning. The digital divide is also evident with the older generations, where many are unable to escape their social isolation due to lack of access to digital technology. There is a lot we take for granted about our digital lives. But before we hail ‘the brave new world’ and look at the opportunities that are presented to us as a result of this current situation, it’s with the caveat that many will also be left behind. Technology and access to it must be prioritised by policymakers if they are interested in addressing equal access to work and education in the post-Covid world.

My small ethnographic contribution to the field of digital anthropology comes from the mindset of an optimist and with a genuine curiosity in how people, in this case, educators, suddenly turn their “analogue” world to use Fabio Piras’ word, into a remote, digital one. The educators that I interviewed had no choice but to transition into the digital world, literally overnight. It has revealed some interesting things about how we relate to each other in the digital world vs the ‘real world’ or the physical social world; how our perception of time and privacy changes; but also, how this situation has forced them to look at their own practice as well as their profession’s. It seems that when we are all touched and vulnerable in the face of SARS Cov-2, it is easier to see ourselves as part of a greater picture, a greater whole. While our gaze has turned to our screens, our minds have turned to the world and we have become particularly sensitive to our place in it. It was this process of transition, from the point of view of the people I interviewed, that I was particularly interested in.

Initial shock: The transition into the digital world

Back in February 2020 it was the seasonal fashion week trail in the “big 4” fashion capitals of the world – New York, London, Milan and Paris. In the UK, fashion is a multibillion-pound industry and Central Saint Martins (CSM) in London has always been regarded as a source of some of the world’s finest emerging design talents. As the MA Fashion course director at CSM, Fabio Piras is an authority in fashion education. When he, without a doubt, became wary of Covid-19 “the whole fashion system was in full fashion week mode”, he says.

Covid-19 became a tragic reality within days. It’s really eerie to put it in terms of fashion week because obviously that’s an industry moment. We staged the biggest MA course catwalk showcase to date involving 200 people backstage and 700 in the audience.  A few days later the fashion crowd moved to Milan with business as usual and then the last show, which was Armani, was under lockdown and done remotely with no audience. That was the end of the week.

During the couple of weeks leading up to lockdown, Fabio had noticed that students were not turning up for class, which he initially took as exhaustion due to finishing their masters. Thinking about how they had all been literally on top of each other in the overcrowded MA studio from the beginning of December to the beginning of  March, there may have been genuine illness.

Like for so many of us, the reality of the situation did not sink in straight away at CSM. Fabio told me that suddenly everyone was faced with the “massive challenge that in a couple of days, your activity that was completely based on human interaction and physical contact ” was coming to a haltAt that point “the realisation that we had to interact and teach remotely became basically – this is what we need to do!”.

From Nothing to Something – Rethinking Pedagogy

Fabio Piras was not the only educator who had to re-think their pedagogy and adapt to the digital world within a matter of days. Francesca Wiggins is the Head of Clinical Practice at the UCO which is the largest and oldest osteopathic educational institution in the UK. It is where I did my undergraduate training, my own teacher training and where I am a clinical tutor for postgraduate osteopaths who want to specialise in paediatrics.

Osteopathy is a hands-on practice, touch being our modality of delivering musculoskeletal treatments to people. There is a huge element of academic work in osteopathic education, but it is also very practical, and students need supervised ‘hands-on’ experience to become competent for registration with the General Osteopathic Council, our statutory regulator.

Fran told me that they had decided to close the student clinic for face-to-face consultations and made the decision to run a virtual clinic. Instead, her tutors are doing case-based work that is mostly led by the students. They are discussing how students could do some elements of the practical work whilst being supervised via video link at home, with the people they live with as ‘patients’, once they have ensured it is “safe and ring-fenced” to do so. The challenge is trying to recreate “clinical uncertainty”, which is essential in clinical education, with “paper cases”.

It was clear that in transitioning education into the digital world, educators and students had to let go of certain aspects of their education and teaching. All three educators that I interviewed had also found they could adapt previous pedagogical methods to the digital world,  and some in surprising ways. Fabio told me about a project given to students in their first year called ‘Nothing’, where students are asked to work without access to facilities or specialist machinery.

 That design brief students always struggle with. That project was about research, problem solving, design ideas, and development and not hiding behind facilities. By springtime, this reality enabled us to do the project for real. Covid (he emphasises) enabled us to do the project for real. Covid seemingly takes what you need to study away from you, but does it really?

Ben, who teaches public engagement at UCL, was missing the more tangible visual clues that face-to-face teaching gives and “which allows you to check that what you’re explaining or what you’re teaching or showing is being understood in the way it was intended to be understood”. I had found his workshop – that included group work in breakout groups with facilitators – very interesting. But it was a tiring experience for me as a student, and I can only imagine it must have been exhausting for Ben and his team to put together.

“Yesterday, I spent the whole day doing tutorials and by 4 o’clock I just wanted to go to bed”, Fabio told me. Fran said that tutors had to put a lot of breaks into their virtual teaching schedule for the osteopathy students and staff, in acknowledgement that online learning can be exhausting. Psychologists have suggested that Zoom meeting exhaustion is caused by missing the non-verbal cues in face-to-face communication. We have to pay extra attention when trying to absorb information in 2D, as our brain is trying to compensate for the sensory deficits.

Private becomes public – New ways of relating

Our private and public lives have become intertwined in the digital world. It was heading that way with Twitter, where every private thought can be tweeted out in seconds to millions of followers. Now, people can see a frame of our lives during Zoom meetings. Not only that, but we now see politicians and scientists in their homes in front of their book collections.  We have all seen Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s Damien Hirst painting of the Queen during interviews, and we are used to the familiar notification noises from people’s devices as they are being interviewed on TV.

The ingenuity of people’s use of technology to create imagery, educate, and communicate has been a welcome distraction from the Government’s daily briefings and from the feeling of helplessness. The digital world has created new ways of relating to the absence of physical contact. Fabio thought that maybe we would become more understanding of people having a home life, and more patient with mistakes such as disruptions, the broadband connection fails, noise cutting out. Some of his students presented a big project to a major brand online some from their respective countries in different time zones. Although it was a last-minute adaptation into the digital world, it has been a great success “Sometimes technology stops you, but sometimes technology lets you be wonderful” he told me.

As the divisions between our private and public spaces have become blurred, the first thing that Fabio is going to do when returning to his office is to get rid of the big desk “not a welcoming piece of furniture” that serves as a physical barrier between him and his students. Symbolically, the desk has become obsolete:

I’ve got my painting in my background that says who I am a bit more. It’s a much more intimate relationship, that has its formality, but the desk has to go. I cannot go back to the desk between us. That would betray our newly established intimate formality”.

 Silver linings – An opportunity for change

With the caveat that what has pushed these educators to make changes to their teaching was “an awful situation”, there was also excitement among them at the potential for positive changes both for the public, their professions and for their practice as educators.

Ben, who has a PhD in chemistry and therefore a strong science background, felt that the public might be more willing to engage with critical thinking, science and research after this is over.

We would like that to continue beyond just the current pandemic – to involve, value and empower people in other things in the everyday, right the way through from material science through to climate change of course.”.

While Fran was cautiously optimistic that a lot of their educational provision could be taken online, she does not see the osteopathic profession letting go of its traditional role “…the touch part of what we do…I think is a really, really important part. And that’s a bit you can’t replace.”. Although she was keen to stress that virtual consultations to support and help patients will, for some patients, be more than sufficient. However, she did not believe that the digital world will be the new panacea for all, as she is acutely aware that some people could easily be left behind.

 I’d say that some of the older adult population is one group, but we know there are lots of people out there who simply can’t afford some of the technology, including some of the kids…And I think those chunks of society are often the worst hit by these sorts of situations because of the knock-on effects, as well as, you know, the situation itself.

Fashion is one of the most significant polluters on the planet. It makes up 10% of human carbon emissions and 85% of textiles are dumped each year.

In Fabio’s view, as someone who influences emerging fashion designers and therefore the future of fashion, he sees the pandemic as a massive and welcome invitation to slow down. To reflect on what needs to happen to move forward. It will make the industry address the uncomfortable reality that producing “endless stuff”, at the expense of so many is not tolerable nor sustainable. He feels the most exciting outcome of this situation could be for the fashion industry to fundamentally change.

I think the opportunity for fashion is massive because it forces us to change the conventions of a discipline that is in unquestionable need to drastically review the commercial and socio-cultural quality of its products. By default mode, fashion education may finally be able to prove to its students that the values and processes discussed in the classroom may soon be tangible practice for the fashion industry as they move into the ‘new normal’.

Conclusion

None of the educators I interviewed believed that they could turn their educational offering into being purely online, but having to shift to digital and online teaching had brought exciting new opportunities and ways of looking at their pedagogy in a different light. Their response to this crisis may signify a drastic new way of life where we have to learn to live with risk and uncertainty. Looking at new ways of adapting to a world that has been turned on its head, or simply stopped, may be an entirely normal and human way of coping with it.

Returning back to my initial reflections about what we may have gained or lost as a result of moving into the digital world in response to this crisis, I know my biggest loss is sensory experience and embodied social contact. I know from my own teaching experience that education is an embodied experience. In my case, as an osteopath, we need the psychomotor learning by ‘doing’. In fashion, it is much the same, as Fabio’s students learn by ‘making’.

Thinking about my MPhil/ PhD cohorts who are expected to do their fieldwork online this year because they can’t travel, I realise this is a huge loss for them. But it’s an even greater loss for anthropology, because however exciting our digital world is, with all its opportunities for us to study the human condition at this critical time, nothing replaces human contact in the ‘real world’.

Acknowledgements

I conducted these interviews on Zoom and Skype. I’m grateful to Fabio, Fran and Ben for sharing their thoughts with me and letting me record them. I hope I did them justice.

Course Director’s room: fitting with student and student as model. Photo by Mika Kailes for MA Fashion Central St Martins
MA Fashion students at the studio working on their collections. Photo by Mika Kailes for MA Fashion Central St Martins