Remote ControlDistance Learning Isn’t a Last Resort—It’s an Opportunity

Young teen doing schoolwork at home after U.K. schools close due to the coronavirus. (Photo credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

Rebecca Epstein-Levi is Bitch Media’s 2020 Sacred Writes Writing Fellow

When I was preparing my fall 2020 courses for remote delivery, I was—to be perfectly honest—overwhelmed by all the possible platforms, course-management gimmicks, and other tools that people seemed to suggest would be crucial parts of #PandemicPedagogy. I participated in the online course-design training provided by my university’s teaching resource center; in the end, however, I decided I was going to teach by the motto “good enough is good enough.” Keeping potential disparities in students’ internet access in mind, along with my own utter lack of patience for sitting through videos, I designed my courses to be mostly asynchronous. I relied largely on discussion boards and collaborative annotation tools like Perusall or Hypothesis. I spelled out the expectations for each week’s work very clearly and made sure all materials on the course’s website could be found in the same place each week. I tried to make lower-stakes weekly work scaffold clearly into more formal assignments. And, of course, I added some funny GIFs.

That, I decided, would have to do. So it was a surprise when students began mentioning that my courses were notably well-designed and well-organized. One student in particular identified them as “neurodivergent friendly.” I’d set out to design courses that were merely good enough to work in unexpected and less-than-ideal circumstances, but something had clearly worked to make them more accessible to more people, full stop. It occurred to me that one reason this had happened might be that my involvement in both fandom and remote Jewish learning communities and partnerships had familiarized me with some of the ways remote learning and relationships can work very well indeed. What’s more, I realized that some of the things remote learning forced me to implement were worth keeping even after the return of face-to-face instruction. Thinking about how to teach remotely had pushed me to design more engaging, humane, and accessible classes, remote or otherwise.

In my last piece for Bitch, I looked at the parallels between online fandom and rabbinic text and considered what they might teach us about the ways remote relationships can be intellectually, socially, and emotionally meaningful—something that’s become especially clear during the COVID-19 pandemic but which has been true before it and will remain when it has been controlled. In this piece, I want to highlight some of the specific things remote relationships can teach us about building education, employment, and relationships in general in more humane, accessible, and flexible ways. First and most simply, having widely available forms of remote interaction in a range of social, recreational, professional, educational, and medical contexts makes those realms that much more accessible to people for whom—for reasons ranging from disabilities and lack of transportation to insufficient time—they are onerous or impossible to access in-person. 

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In fact, disability activists have fought for years to make remote work and education more widely available, and the pandemic has exposed the fallacy—and the ableism—of widespread resistance to that availability in the United States. As attorney and policy analyst Matthew Cortland told the Christian Science Monitor in October 2020, “Disabled folks in this country have been told for decades that: ‘The core of this job requires that you have to be in this particular office, these particular days.’ And that turned out to be a lie.” It’s appalling and infuriating that it took a pandemic—one whose mortality and morbidity has overwhelmingly affected disabled people—to suddenly make widely available what writer and organizer Imani Barbarin has called “all of the accessibility you told disabled people wasn’t possible or was too expensive.” The absolute least we can do is keep remote platforms broadly available post-pandemic. It’s a straightforward question of equity and justice.

Even beyond simple equality of access, thinking about not only the barriers remote communication might remove but the particular strengths it might offer is crucial. Treating such interactions as a last-ditch option or regretful sloppy seconds discounts that, for many people, there are qualities of remote interaction that don’t just approximate the face-to-face version, but actually improve upon it—something that’s become especially apparent to me in the past year. My autism and ADHD make several aspects of traditional face-to-face work and socializing difficult; these include reading nonverbal cues and tones of voice, overcoming sensory and environmental distractions, and carrying on the kind of small talk that’s frequently expected in the workplace. Additionally, as a contingently employed academic whose moved cities three times in the last four years, I’ve had to try to make new friends each time. It’s stressful and loneliness-inducing for anyone, and my neurodivergences ramp that difficulty up to 11.

Once the pandemic made remote friendships my only option, however, I realized with some relief how much that remoteness accommodated my neurodivergences. It reduced (and in some cases even eliminated) some of the more opaque and stressful parts of face-to-face interaction: communicating by email, text messages, and direct messages allowed me a break from constantly trying to decipher nonverbal cues, from hiding my fidgets and stims, and from worrying about maintaining eye contact. The ways remote interaction collapses barriers of time and distance, meanwhile, made it much easier to find social communities (like fandom and the rabbinic beit midrash) oriented around strong, immersive interests; those organizing affinities, in turn, reduced the need for a lot of small talk. This all makes finding a certain sort of kindred spirit much easier than it would otherwise be—and it not only makes possible a way of forming relationships that are notably neurodivergent-friendly, but it helps destigmatize those relationships as well.

Clearly scaffolding the week’s tasks helped students devote more brain space to the actual material and less to figuring out what they should be doing when.

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Finally, thinking creatively about remote interaction helps us think about pedagogical models that work across distance—and how those models might work in all educational contexts. This is a point on which both rabbinic text and fandom, which I discussed in my last article, have much to teach us. The study of rabbinic texts has caught onto this, as both informal Skype chevrutas (text-study partnerships) and more organized remote study programs like Project Zug demonstrate. Similarly, the kind of conversation and close reading of text across distance that fandom facilitates has informed my understanding of what’s possible with remote, asynchronous college courses. From my experience with fandom, blogging, discussion boards, the ways I and many of my colleagues use social media platforms like Twitter, and remote chevruta study, I knew that rich and productive discourse and interpersonal connection was possible remotely, on both synchronous and asynchronous platforms. And because I wouldn’t be able to have immediate face-to-face contact with my classes and get instantaneous feedback in that way, and in the absence of  regular in-person meetings, I also knew I would have to be very deliberate about being responsive and creating consistency for my students. 

For instance, I took particular care to spell out exactly which tasks had to be done when. I explained why they were arranged in the order they were, and I kept the basic set weekly tasks simple and consistent. I put all the assigned readings in a collaborative-annotation program so that the students and I could see and respond to one another’s notes on the material. And I tried to be especially diligent about responding to students’ emails quickly, warmly, and kindly. It turned out that having to think so explicitly about consistency, responsiveness, and how a given platform was or wasn’t working for students revealed that taking the dynamics of face-to-face teaching for granted allowed me to ignore things I should have been designing better all along. The collaborative-annotation platform, for example, helped students engage with and understand readings far better than they had before—and forced me to be much more intentional about what I was assigning and why. Likewise, clearly scaffolding the week’s tasks helped students devote more brain space to the actual material and less to figuring out what they should be doing when. I hope these techniques will go a long way toward making both remote and in-person learning more engaging and accessible. 

To be sure, especially in the society we currently live in, remote work and education as it exists now is not all sunshine and roses. Far from it. A number of voices have pointed out that particularly for women with young children, the combination of remote work, remote learning, and the near-total absence of social support results in an almost impossible situation. What’s more, not all disability access needs are unidirectional; indeed, widespread moves to remote education and support services have had significant social and material costs for many disabled people, especially those who have been institutionalized or who lack adequate internet access. However, these things indict our crumbling social support networks rather than the wider availability of remote communication, work, and education per se. But what we can take from all this is that neither remote interaction nor face-to-face interaction is intrinsically better or worse than the other. Each has advantages and disadvantages; each may be more or less accessible to different people for different reasons. Neither, on its own, is sufficient—both must be widely available to everyone. And when they are, they will offer us important lessons in how to make education, work, and communication in general kinder, more accessible, more humane—and perhaps, even, more fun.

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by Rebecca Epstein-Levi
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Rebecca Epstein-Levi teaches Jewish Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Vanderbilt University. She’s an expert on Jewish sexual ethics and is revising a book about sex, risk, and rabbinic text. In her copious free time, she enjoys cooking, sharpening her overly large collection of kitchen knives, and hanging around (and just maybe writing for) her smallish corner of fandom. You can follow her on Twitter @RJELevi.