Online Learning in the Time of Corona


by Mohamed Salama

I grew up in the aftermath of Nasser’s Egypt, where public education was made free for all. For me, learning has always been remote… It began with walks to the public libraries, and random flaneur strollings in Old Cairo’s Sur al-Azbakiyya, a treasure hunt for books, old and new, in a modest constellation of open-air sidewalk bookstores: a crumpled and wrinkled King Lear, an overused Jane Eyre, a heavily marked Emma with blue ink notes on the marginalia, a Mother Courage missing its last scene, a torn-apart copy of al-Jurjani’s Dala’il al-I ‘jaz, or a pristine Tree of Being that Ibn ‘Arabi probably knew was meant to be yours. It was like stepping through a portal into a different world: a street library full of books you can take home at an affordable price. With more than 100 booksellers, nothing was particularly elegant, organized or catalogued as you would see in a library or a fancy bookstore. There were always more books than the small shelves could contain- an abundance of books laid in rows on the street curb, piled up on corners, or ornamenting the long sur (fence). You can sit down and read as much as you need. Most of the sellers were men of modest incomes but rich in knowledge. They knew the rich did not shop here and this is a place where the poor can be enriched. Not all the booksellers read or spoke English and you would have lucked out to find your Shakespeare in a heap of books on cooking, gardening, engineering or medicine. We knew the sellers and they knew us by name. Some of them would have piles of English books they think I would like  prepared for my next visit. A rendezvous of bibliophilia that I failed to find a substitute for in the US, even when I nostalgically frequented used and half-priced bookstores in my grad school years in Wisconsin.

It has been natural to fit in and teach at a traditional university that has a library with walk-in stacks. When my school replaced the stacks with an electronic arm, I felt that my accidental learning would come to a stop and I would no longer be able to find the books that wanted me to find them, not the books that I was looking for. I do not suppose the world of Zoom and google- meets would enrich me the same way my traditional walking and peripatetic learning has done. While nothing would feel the same, nothing remains the same either, a fact of life we must all embrace.

Still, I have been teaching online for years. For those like me, it hurts to see that some colleagues view online teaching as a hurriedly arranged solution, or a quick fix to an uncontrollable pandemic. In this case, it certainly is and I share the pain. Although it was the only practical way to save the day, the shift was in many ways cruel, hastily imposed like a sentence without a fair trial. Online learning is a process that takes months and years to prepare for and to master. The stress on instructors, especially senior faculty, adapting courses to online formats “overnight” is unbearable, a sweet dream in the field of daffodils changing suddenly into a nightmare of zombie chase. The grief and the panic are real for our poor students, whose lives have been summarily disrupted overnight, who lost their jobs and have to struggle to find laptops or afford plans to stay online.

Neither will online teaching save the university nor can technology save the world. But good teachers and good educators always do. The worst mistake a university could commit in these challenging times is to get rid of teachers, especially non tenured faculty who in the good times have carried all the weight of teachings on their shoulders. Novel Coronavirus is a crisis, no doubt, but every crisis brings forth an opportunity. The opportunity is to invest in more outreach to students who could not come to the university, reduce tuitions and equip faculty with online teaching training to continue their mission in the new medium. For now, teaching online gives us a breather until the virus threat is eliminated, or at best mitigated until another disaster forces us to think creatively. Until then, we must prepare ourselves to offer our classes and our degrees online.

Many of us will surely miss face to face communications with students, our traditional office hours, classrooms and professorial habits. When it comes to learning and teaching, I am half a traditionalist. Part of me wants to defend my way of life and fight tooth and nail every assault on my freedom to teach the way I was trained to teach. I would want to protest remote teaching and sign petitions to discredit it. That’s what traditionalists should do and without these protestations we wouldn’t call modernity what it is now. However, I also tend to forget that electric fireplaces, cars, pens, boards, smartrooms, notebooks, and work offices are part of this technology. Even without COVID-19, we were destined to go online eventually, perhaps not pushed into it so forcefully and so abruptly as we are now, but many credible universities have already begun to offer undergraduate and graduate degrees online. I was not yet alive to witness the days when horses lost jobs to fast cars, so I could only imagine the shattering, but I certainly have seen typewriters give in to computers. If COVID-19 is pushing humanity to deliver a premature homo electronico, so be it. I would welcome this birth knowing that babies born too early would need neo-natal intensive and around the clock care and support before they can fully recover. Only then will good teachers be able continue to teach in/with the new medium. Many of us will miss traditional teaching, and I deeply hope it comes back. But until then, some of us won’t miss the maddening probability of getting into a car accident en route to work, the ceaseless consumption of gas, or the lethal pollution that has been killing our planet for decades. Some won’t miss the long commute to work, the slow shuttle lines or crammed elevators.

So to friends of the humanities in the time of corona, to teachers of languages and cultures, could things of the heart be conveyed in Zoom? Must the humanities be taught only in a physical space, a classroom full of bodies and seats? Or could online learning show us that just as the first steam locomotive broke the silence of rural South Wales and the Wright Flyer cut through the skies of North Carolina, the humanities too will continue to thrive digitally and find a way to calm the cares and elevate the thoughts of humankind?


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