Instead of watching pandemic movies, my family started watching movies where bureaucracies fail to honestly account for contrary expert opinions, due to which the fallout is more widespread and dangerous than was necessary. Last week we watched Jurassic Park, and Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm is eerily prescient for a modern audience.

The key line from this speech is a meme in itself, and has been utilized everywhere from doctoral dissertations to bumper stickers: Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. Malcolm recognizes the grandeur of the moment and the majesty of the dinosaurs, but that is immaterial when it comes to the practical as well as ethical aspects on the environment.

I find myself using Dr. Malcolm’s line as foundation for my approach to educational technology during this #emergencyonlinepivot and the subsequent transition from the immediate, get-it-all-online moment to this more drawn out, we’re-online-so-what-do-we-do-now existential space. This is somewhat ironic, I have a doctorate in learning technologies and the one constant across my decade+ of educational administration work is a relationship to digital and telecommunication technologies and their potential positive impact on teaching and learning. However, there is nothing contrary in being a technology advocate who sees considerable economic, pedagogical and equitable problems with a particular narrative of Technology as a solutionistic and opportunistic Maslowian hammer.

Successful education recognizes learning is a personal negotiation of identity built through social communication and interaction. We learn best when we learn from one another within an environment that celebrates similarities as well as differences, and that knowledge and its effect on us is realized in our personal and professional environments. The history of distance education is built upon the promise of connecting people across geographic bounds, whether through the postal service, radio/tv/film, or telecommunications. The particular technologies deployed over the last 30+ years of Internet-enhanced distance education are often immaterial for the success of a course; we work within the confines of our time and technological capabilities to connect students with experts, expertise and peers. Learners make connections to people and information in a variety of modalities…a generation of artists connected with Bob Ross without having ever joined him for a Zoom session or working through his PowerPoint lecture.

This is a photoshop of Bob Ross wearing a surgical mask while taking a selfie with a T Rex
This brilliant bit of #BobRossDinoSelfieCovid Photoshop is courtesy of Rebecca Moe

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented moment in the history of social structures such as education. After all of the time spent creating emergency plans and three- or five-year road maps that include fail safe options, we find ourselves in the actual emergency. Yet not even a month into global orders of shelter in place, there are many education narratives attempting to frame the pandemic as an opportunity. Extreme situations can certainly create space for extraordinary opportunities, but that viewpoint is severely limited considering this moment in time. Perhaps if the move to distance/online/remote education had happened in a vacuum that did not involve a global pandemic, millions sick, tens of thousands dead, tens of millions unemployed, hundreds of millions hungry, billions anxious and uncertain of society’s next step…perhaps then this would be that opportunity moment. Instead, we have a global emergency where the stress is felt everywhere but it certainly is not evenly distributed, so learning/aligning/deploying/assessing new technology for the classroom is not universally feasible. You can’t teach someone to swim while they’re drowning.

Meeting people where they are during this time (and that means everyone, from the admin and support staff to the faculty and students) requires rethinking some of the formal practices we have grown accustomed to in our education institutions, and instead considering how communication and collaboration can be used to inspire teaching and learning in the informal spaces where education now takes place. This reminds me of Seymour Papert’s conversation on Kitchen Math in The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer. For Papert, the formality of math instruction in the classroom, where students meticulously compute numbers through formal means, fails to re-engage the lived math experience. In the classroom, 2 1/2 x 2/3 = 1 2/3. But in the kitchen the multiplication is, as Papert puts it, an improvisation of spatulas and measuring cups. On cooking television, whether it’s a show like Chopped or a chef like Gordon Ramsay, the understanding of the math of ingredients is in constant informal motion, influenced by the particulars of the environment. Both the scientist and the chef recognize the principles of multiplication, but our classrooms have made the scientist concrete and have not engaged what the scientist looks like in the abstract nor what the chef looks like as concrete or abstract.

What does kitchen math look like in an emergency online learning space? It is an engagement of the tools common to your environment and based fully in pedagogical principles. The technology informs the pedagogy. If the goal is instructor presence, why not film a short video on a mobile device reflecting on the relationship of the course and this time in life, and share it with students? If the concern is the validity of an examination, why not think about a way in which students could use those same cameras not to film or photograph themselves taking a multiple choice exam but constructing knowledge by building a manipulative at home that shows the relationship of the individual to instruction? If there’s a concern about some of the reading, use the telecommunications tools for discussion or even a read-aloud session. Working with what’s available not only eases the faculty burden, it grounds the learning in the environment of the learner. Everyone is dealing with the same emergency; the best tools to get through this are the ones we have regular interaction with, not those brought in as a panic buy with a significant instructional manual and learning curve.

In Disney Pixar’s most recent film Onward, the protagonist Ian struggles with learning how to become a wizard, in part because he cannot grasp a comprehensive understanding of how the objects and people in his environment coexist. His brother Barley notes a true wizard works with what he has and that there is magic in every glorious fiber of the staff he has been using throughout the film. Later when Ian is unable to use the staff itself, he can still vanquish the enemy of the moment by recognizing the magic existing all around him, in every glorious fiber of his surroundings. There is plenty of magic already in education, using what we have right now recognizes the power of the people and objects in our field and best accommodates for this moment.

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