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Unearthing The Remoter Sides of Remote Learning

by Monica Bhattacharjee - February 10, 2022

This commentary examines some of the less talked-about aspects of remote learning through my first-hand lenses as an online educator for an undergraduate course in Education. I look into the sociomaterial equations at play in connection to issues of agency, engagement, and perceptions of surveillance, concluding that these are gainfully supported by remote methods of learning.

We all know, at least to some extent, what online learning entails, and have been inducted into it at will or with varying degrees of resistance over the course of the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the prevailing public discourse around the need for in-person learning has gained significant traction in recent months, I argue that remote learning, especially in the secondary and postsecondary contexts, can offer substantial benefits besides flexibility, time management, and reduced carbon footprints. I extend the argument through three key areas that warrant discussion: agency, engagement, and perceptions of surveillance through firsthand lived experiences of teaching several online courses. This is not without its caveats.

To provide a little background, most of these courses were synchronous, where students logged in, in real time. For the purpose of this commentary, I will be citing examples from an undergraduate program in the Faculty of Education at a Canadian university where I served as a Teaching Assistant. Although I had dabbled in blended learning before, this experience was emphatic in highlighting how the sociomaterialities of remote learning play out and what implications these hold for the educational landscape. I ground this in the sociomaterial theories of Karen Barad and Tim Ingold, where humans and non-human materials/physical environments are not framed as subjects using objects or as separate, bounded, pre-formed entities with the former merely learning within or through the medium of the latter. Instead, this is where the human and material are relational co-constitutive participants comprising an assemblage of performative, constantly evolving intra-relations (Barad, 2007) with distributed agencies stemming from that intra-action (Barad, 2007; Ingold, 2016).

Engagement is a big word in learning, but challenges to it abound in this age of information overload, digital distractions, and mounting existential challenges. Indeed, it seems harder and harder to keep students engaged and motivated. Active participation in a lesson depends on many prerequisites. The first of these is students psychophysiological situations. Regardless of the steadfastness of brick-and-mortar school hours, students these days are staying up longer and sleeping less, sometimes by choice but more often as a natural fallout of the rat-racing clockwork of postmodern realities paralyzed by various forms of FOMO (fear of missing out). Perhaps this sounds too blunt, but remote learning allows both students and teachers more time for rest, thus aiding both motivation and engagement. An example would help here. In this course, students usually had to log in for a lecture in the morning, followed by their tutorials. Lectures began at 9 a.m. and, being more unidirectional, it was common practice to keep videos off. Understandably, the ability to log in from their home-study, bedroom, or even washroom allowed them to be there in whichever form they felt convenient at that time of the day. Although we have been conditioned to believe that 9 a.m. is a reasonable time given that K12 schools usually start earlier, as do many workplaces, it is not unfair to think otherwise in the postmodern timespace compressed world (Giddens, 1990) where notions of both time and space have been largely reformulated. The hard reality is that we are challenged by disrupted circadian rhythms due to the busyness it has caused, and societal expectations to succeed push us to stretch those rhythms, sometimes in irreversible ways. This ability to be present, even just as a name on a dark screen, overrides the opportunities lost when physical presence in a lecture theater is mandated and students cannot make it or make it in time. Even when they can, I ask which is better: a tired, sleep-deprived student with no time for breakfast, snoozing in a lecture hall as a nameless entity in a sea of people, or one that sits in her PJs with a piece of fruit or bowl of cereal in her hand, video and audio muted but her willing self being at one with the screen, participating in some reasonable capacity? The earlier option of the snoozer could be rendered impossible by some of the more demanding professors, but in over a decade of teaching, I have seen students with eyes wide open but dead as wood when nudged. Physical presence is no guarantee of cognitive or affective engagement, and a dark screen does not necessarily mean disengagement. We need to revise our definitions of what we mean by engagement and allow ourselves to challenge the status quo with discretion.  


Engagement during tutorials was facilitated by the format of it being a shorter session of 50 minutes in smaller groups of 20 or less. As instructors, we requested them to turn on their videos during tutorials, at least for the first few minutes, to acknowledge each others existence and because tutorials usually comprise smaller groups with more back-and-forth interaction. Some did, some didnt, but this wasnt interspersed randomly within the group. Interestingly, in some groups everyone turned their videos on while in others, none didI guess there was a strong element of peer pressure involved. Engagement seemed even higher in breakout room sessions, perhaps because once in their breakout rooms it was an even smaller group that allowed more free-flowing communication without being watched. It also had an element of the nominal group technique (NGT), where everyone in the smaller group could contribute without being swept in by the overwhelming physical presence of a more dominant group member. I jumped between breakout rooms and noticed that some rooms were on fire, some just flowing along, and others eerily quiet. Sometimes, they really had less to share back with the bigger group but many times, the stillness that I noticedperhaps due to stepping into their room latewas contradicted by the decently nuanced responses they had to offer. Some students later shared with me informally that the protection of the screen allowed them to feel more comfortable quieting down and conserving energy when they were done than if they had been in an actual classroom, where the presence of other, chattier groups might have pushed the quieter counterparts anxiety a few notches up.

Closely related to the aspect of authenticity is that of surveillance. Most of our public spaces are designed in accordance with the requirements of those higher up the power ladder. Whether it be amphitheater seating in lecture halls or glass panels on solid doors, open-concept layouts in workspaces, or even the more progressive U-shaped seating plans in some classrooms, everyone in physical public settings knows they are being watched, and sometimes for good reason such as for safety, fairness, participation, and collaboration. However, the performativity of learning and working under watchful eyes is often affected and may not be desirable all of the time, even for the most outgoing and extroverted students let alone for those with social anxiety or anyone coping with fatigue or stress. Being able to observe someone is inherently an act of power and control, best typified by invigilators in examination halls. Michel Foucault (1977, 2009) referred to this phenomenon of hierarchical observation in saying that the exercise of discipline presupposes a mechanism that coerces by means of observation, where the exercise of power entails and requires visibility of those that are under its gaze. This has also taken on a multitude of insidious forms in the virtual world, where data being constantly tracked, harvested, and sold to third parties by profit-driven corporations is common knowledge. These, alongside extensive government surveillance measures, work at all levels from marketing and advertising to recording biometrics and swaying election results. Despite this, the physical and embodied forms of surveillance are what most people are most sensitive to, especially in academic settings. A student using his phone in class is much more sensitive to as little as a single pair of authoritative eyes in his physical surroundings than he is to the millions of cookies tracking his IP address in virtual spaces. Bodies exert immediate influence. Remote learning allowing the ability to toggle between turning cameras on and off, unless specific rules outline otherwise, offers solace from the perceived discomfort of surveillance, thus contributing to qualitative aspects of learning that improve in the absence of the feeling of being constantly watched for those that are particularly sensitive to it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen unprecedented levels of anxiety and stress. In such conditions, the students screen allows her to be however she feels at that moment, and enables a subtle reflection of how she is engaging with the world on that day rather than splitting her into binaries of present and absent. Texting, PM-ing, and group chat options further help with in this regard. I had a high-performing student in one of my tutorials who would always have the camera on but tilted to an angle not fully showing her face. An international student who felt insecure about his linguistic barriers in speech but not so much in writing felt more enabled, too. Another student who felt unusually overwhelmed by the pandemic and her job said this medium allowed her to connect only as much as she could afford to on bad days. The screen became an extension of who they were and how they felt that dayand it allowed them to keep the ball rolling without additional pressures.

Of course, there are also limitations to remote learningtechnical snags, excessive screen-time, lack of physical activity and tactile contact, and the frequent inability to go past the lesson to name a few. The biggest concern for us as instructors was around their presence and engagement when the videos were off, and that was confirmed a few times by a lack of response from the other end when called out. For the most part though, such instances remained an anomaly. Norms of online behavior were also modified and stretched, such as some students appearing wrapped up in blankets or seated next to a sleeping person when asked to temporarily turn on their videos. I even had a student vaping and honestly couldnt quite figure out how to respond at that moment. The key to successful synchronous remote learning is self-regulation and negotiation of acceptable behavior, best done democratically in the initial sessions and then reinforced/checked in on every other week.

It is vital to recognize how human and non-human agencies coalesce in remote learning dimensions and appreciate the ways in which we can leverage on these intra-actions to drive greater inclusion and student success. Remote learning is not just about the technology or the learning being online; it is more about making room for diverse learners, their needs and affordances, by allowing them greater agency, authenticity, and room for positive variable motivation.


Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Duke University Press.

Ingold, T. (2016). Lines: A brief history. Routledge.

Giddens, A. (1990). The consequences of modernity. Stanford University Press.

Sargiacomo, M. Michel Foucault, discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. J. Manag. Gov. 13, 269 (2009). https://doi-org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/10.1007/s10997-008-9080-7

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 10, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23983, Date Accessed: 3/14/2022 5:29:57 AM

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About the Author
  • Monica Bhattacharjee
    Simon Fraser University
    E-mail Author
    MONICA BHATTACHARJEE is a Ph.D. candidate at Simon Fraser University, Canada. Her research focuses on examining intersubjective spaces through contemplative inquiry to acknowledge and transcend the ubiquity of motivated reasoning and confirmation biases. She has been an educator for over twelve years with teaching experiences in Singapore and Canada and currently works with the Surrey School District in BC. Her favorite thing about teaching is learning something new from students each day.
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