The Hidden Costs of Zooming: Exploring Non-digital Pedagogies for a More Sustainable Future
Many professors have become more reliant on technology while teaching in the COVID-19 era. In this essay, I will share both some of the ways digital technology has improved my pedagogy along with discussing the myriad reasons why faculty should also prioritize incorporating lessons and teaching strategies that do not rely on resource-intensive technology. I’ll start by discussing some of the benefits of our new tech-focused learning landscape.
When thinking about class participation before the pandemic, I’ve noticed a pattern: a handful of students would contribute regularly, another handful would chime in occasionally, and a sizable group would seldom contribute, if ever, at the whole class level. Many students were reluctant to participate in whole class discussions likely due to some combination of verbal shyness, needing more time to collect their thoughts before speaking (only to then find the topic focus has since moved on), or wanting to carefully construct their words so as not to offend anyone by speaking too quickly (which can be considerably more likely in my Race, Class, and Gender Studies in Education courses). My original modification to these skewed participation ratios was to incorporate small group discussions, which did help to expand participation. However, as I and so many others had to quickly transition our classes to online instruction in March 2020, we sought ways to further develop our technological pedagogical content knowledge (Harris and Hofer 2011), namely, to reflect on how we can employ technology affordances (Norman 1988) to further improve the careful integration of course content with effective pedagogy.
Regarding the uneven class participation dilemma, my consideration of technological affordances enabled me to create a forum for nearly all students to comfortably participate at the whole class level. That is, by inviting all students (both in-person students and those streaming in) to use the video conferencing chat function as a substitute for verbally sharing their perspectives, I was suddenly noticing that often all of my students were participating at this level. And if computer access was an issue, I sometimes encouraged discussions through a texting app such as GroupMe. Of course, fully running an in-person class while simultaneously engaging online quarantining students is clunky at best and, at worst, quite unmanageable, so I also realized I could do what any third-grade teacher already knows: enlist some student helpers. As such, by midsemester I assigned two students per class to read the chat comments and either share them verbatim or summarize/synthesize the key ideas shared in the thread with the whole class.
I’ve also found technology to be quite helpful for collaborating with other professors’ classes. Drawing upon some earlier work encouraging students to develop their own digital history textbooks (Jiménez and Moorhead 2017), during the spring 2021 semester my education students “virtually” partnered with graphic design students to co-create a children’s storybook explaining the many benefits of composting and ways to do it, as a component of an environmental education service-learning project (Gonzalez 2016; Gonzalez, McCrory, and Lynch 2018). Despite these benefits, though, many researchers have found that differential access to digital learning infrastructure such as computers and Wi-Fi had significantly increased inequality among students in a variety of ways (Rafalow 2018; Auxier and Anderson 2020), and students of color are also more likely to experience discrimination even when they have equal access to such resources. Of course, the pandemic has only further exacerbated these worrisome trends (Lavietes 2019).
However, there are additional seldom-raised equity concerns with digitally-infused pedagogy that not many educators have appreciated, namely, that such beneficial, albeit resource-intensive technology (Campbell 2020), is unfortunately contingent on three highly calamitous realities: human exploitation, fossil fuel burning, and environmental degradation.1 Beginning with labor exploitation at the point of resource extraction, few may realize that many Congolese children—some as young as five years old—have been maimed and sometimes even died while digging for the cobalt needed for our smart phones to function (Kelly 2016), and many parents of these suffering children have sued Apple and Google for sourcing merchandise components from such work sites (I must also disclose my own complicity, as I am typing this essay on a Mac computer using a Google document) (Lavietes 2019). Next, when reaching the product development stage, many computer manufacturers routinely violate labor regulations, cutting corners on workers’ benefits, safety, and overall well-being in order to maximize profit (Campbell 2020). Exploitation further continues among people employed in the distribution network; for instance, deplorable Amazon workplace conditions have been extensively documented (Sainato 2020). And of course, let’s not forget that Zoom’s cloud hosting service is, in fact, brought to us by Amazon (Shah 2020).
Secondly, one must acknowledge the high levels of fossil fuel burning required in constructing and delivering our technology devices as well as through our use of them. Even in the unlikely event that a device’s electricity generation comes via what is misleadingly called “renewable” energy, solar panels and wind turbines still require fossil fuels for their manufacture, delivery, backup, and disposal, along with additional harmful environmental consequences from utilizing this so-called “green energy” (Troszak 2019; Mensah et al. 2015). In recent years, thousands of scientists have been raising the alarm that continued fossil fuel burning risks having us imminently cross climate-related and other environmental tipping points, and thus collectively we have no time left to delay our dramatic shift to a less energy-intensive way of life (“Thousands of Scientists” 2021).
In addition to global warming, computers and smart phones require a variety of rare earth minerals, and their mining processes generate about 2000 tons of toxic waste for every one ton of rare earth minerals extracted (Jensen et al. 2021). Villagers living adjacent to these mines are seldom able to plant vegetables or raise livestock due to subsequently poisoned soil and water, and impoverished residents of these “cancer villages” are routinely exposed to chemicals that cause a variety of serious medical conditions (Su 2019). Recycling concomitant e-waste is also among the world’s most hazardous industries, subjecting many of the world’s poor to toxic fumes (Jensen, Keith, and Wilbert 2021).
Furthermore, while many teachers and professors may feel compelled to regularly incorporate technology to build their students’ tech literacy for their future careers, the time horizon remaining for widespread tech device availability and use may be much briefer than generally assumed.2 As such, technological skills may become less important in a future of rapidly declining capacity to support such technology.3 For instance, devices such as computers are composed of sixty minerals, many of which are rare-earth minerals with no renewable substitutes (Friedemann 2021) and require complex supply chains already under extreme stress (Goodman and Bradsher 2021). In short, the more we use our digital devices (and encourage our students to do likewise), the more we run them down and require replacements, adding to further labor, resource, and ecosystem exploitation coupled with looming resource constraints.4 Thus, shouldn’t we educators be at the forefront in role modeling instructional methods less reliant on exacerbating human misery and environmental devastation?
A lot of the talk about not going back to (all that was bad about) “normal” schooling when the threat of COVID-19 no longer significantly impacts classroom learning has focused on addressing students’ and teachers’ mental health (as has been neglected before the pandemic), and this is certainly appropriate. But alongside questioning a return to “business-as-usual” schooling, I invite you to also consider relying less on resource-intensive electronic devices in your classroom because of issues related to equity (not disadvantaging students with poor Wi-Fi connections and/or limited access to technology in a non-disruptive environment) and production (human and environmental exploitation). Some lessons and activities that I've developed (or adapted) in the past year include the following:
- As a “get to know each other” ice breaker, you can ask students to create a “snapshot autobiography” in which they draw comic strip panels (stick figures welcome) that reflect something about them, such as key moments in their life or their favorite and least favorite places, and then have the students learn from their peers by walking around the room and reading each other’s biographies. As a professor of education, I sometimes specify topics such as their favorite elementary school classroom and why, least favorite subject and why, etc.
- You can encourage students to visit in campus-adjacent locations, such as a nearby cemetery where they glean what they can about gender and class issues over time from examining tombstones. I’ve also encouraged students to engage in nature walks where they can ponder the weeks' readings/class discussions; dozens of research studies have demonstrated such walks can lead to significant gains in attention, stress reduction, emotional well-being, and positive social interactions (Weir 2020).
- You can ask students to conduct socially distanced, outdoor, in-person interviews within their social networks (or in the larger community) about their interviewees’ experiences with their school or job aspirations or discrimination. If students still have COVID or other concerns, they can opt to conduct interviews over the phone.
- You can encourage appreciation of our local physical environment in ways that value and revive indigenous knowledge, such as taking students on a walking tour to highlight the ways some indigenous communities have used local plants and trees. You can also help them identify edible local plants (such as the common ornamental hostas) and teach them how more environmentally-friendly local organic eating can reduce the carbon emission legacy burden that future generations—especially people living in the Global South—will be forced to endure; it also develops their future resilience by redirecting activities at the local level. For example, many US homeowners routinely remove dandelions as “weeds” from their lawns and place them in plastic bags for landfill disposal when, instead, they can be plucked as a nutritious and delicious (especially when boiled and salted) backyard staple (see author photo).
- Rather than automatically require students to purchase multiple books (which is an equity issue for low-income students), read articles/books over the internet (which is energy-intensive and also can have equity issues), or print out all their articles (which cuts down more trees), you can divert some of this resource consumption by creating assignments that involve lending out one’s personal books for students. For example, this past Fall/Winter 2021 semester in my class, I have my students simulate a book club in which they read and reported on their chosen books. For larger classes and/or if you don’t have enough loanable books, you can either reach out to colleagues with extensive libraries, allow students to check out library books, or have two or more students share a book (while this may add some inconvenience, it can offset that with added accountability to not procrastinate). Wouldn’t you rather have those many books in your home or office be put to good use instead of just collecting dust?
- You can collect any textbooks, magazines, or newspapers you come across and create text-based quantitative or narrative research assignments that students can complete individually or working in small groups. I’ve given one assignment that asks students to analyze newspaper articles for language bias; for instance, many authors are more likely (in media reports and textbooks) to describe violence against women and people of color in the distancing passive voice, which lowers readers’ affectual processing, as I and others have found in previous research (Jiménez 2020).
- You can encourage creative expression through writing expressive poetry, songs, or plays. For instance, every semester I have my students write and then share a poem describing their own and/or others’ gender experiences. I suggest they can use the rhyming template of Gil Scott Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” if they want some structure, but I’m open to whatever form or style they choose.
- You can have students observe other environments (such as other classes) and pay heed to any gender dynamics (such as noting any patterns among who speaks in class, any perceived differences in tone, how people address others, etc.)
- You can reach out to local NGOs for other in-person educational ideas. Adapting some great work conducted by a local social justice–oriented arts organization called Civic Ensemble, I’ve asked students to anonymously write down an experience with discrimination (as oppressed or oppressor) on different colors of paper. Each student selects a piece of paper that isn’t their own experience, and in small groups students decide to act out one or more scenes written by their peers. Then I invite students to tag out one of the skit’s participants and offer how they might respond in less prejudicial ways. Even though students are sharing their experiences anonymously, such an activity requires a significant level of trust in the classroom, so I would recommend scheduling it later in the semester.
- The final suggestion is to incorporate storytelling, inspired by the work of Tyson Yunkaporta, author of Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World (2020). Yunkaporta explains that we tend to think we’re permanently storing data on devices and cloud servers, as if they'll be extant forever. But devices break, technology becomes outdated and obsolete, and servers can crash. And that’s just at an individual scale, to say nothing about a low-energy future when there is no longer the capacity, or defensible justification, to use scarce energy resources to keep this information accessible. But indigenous people have developed cultures capable of keeping and transmitting data for not just centuries but thousands of years, and that’s through storytelling.
For example, Yunkaporta has discussed how we have no way of knowing what many extinct Megafauna sounded like through traditional scientific study, but approximations of many of these extinct animals’ calls have, in fact, been preserved and passed down across generations through collective storytelling (Bradford et al. 2021). I remind my students that they, like me, have probably forgotten most of the information for most of the tests they’ve taken, but they can sometimes retell the key points today from a story they first heard as a young child. Thus, storytelling not only develops a much-needed indigenous way of making sense of the world (as well as preserving one’s culture) but also imparts a skill that is likely to outlast any tech skills they’re currently developing, and—given the increasing number of scholars willing to state publicly their concern about looming breakdown of our globally connected society (Bendell and Read 2021; “Over 500 Sign” 2021)—is arguably more important to lifelong learning than any short-term technology skills they might be taught today.
On the one hand, I think there is value in considering the “affordances” of technology to improve our pedagogy and expand our capacity to be more inclusive to both different learning styles and students who can't show up in person for COVID-related or other reasons. Digital and other resource-intensive technology can contribute to creating a more inclusive classroom environment that tailors to students’ different learning styles, abilities, and resource availability; this can be particularly valuable for providing assisted learning technology for students with disabilities (Edyburn 2013). However, before rushing to electronics to meet these goals, I implore all educators acknowledge the ravaging of our planet wrought by our excessive abuse of people and our environment through our digital education infrastructure, and that we set aside time to develop creative pedagogical strategies that do not rely on such exploitation. In other words, we have to be honest about the consequences of using technology in our pedagogy and ask, is it worth the associated labor oppression and environmental destruction we’re complicit in? To what extent do current students' learning experience justify making the world a worse place to live for future generations (and nearly all other species)? As such, I feel it’s essential that we privileged consumers of digital devices in the rich industrialized world be mindful and not automatically give in to the constant pressure to incorporate more resource-intensive technology into our classrooms, at least not before contemplating how we might be able to meet our curricular objectives without it.
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1 What I refer to as “resource-intensive technology” is any classroom tool that requires high energy initially to create it and/or sustain it; this term includes but is not limited to devices (e.g., smart phones, iPads, and computers) and streaming services (e.g., video conferencing calls or other activities requiring active internet streaming).
2 Seeking to update the 1972 MIT “Limits to Growth” study with real world data, Herrington (2020) found our world is currently following its “business as usual” and “comprehensive technology” projected paths which, if continued, would lead to a steep decline in industrial growth, food production, and overall standards of living beginning around 2040.
3 This can be due to some combination of disrupted supply chains that deliver device components; diverted allocation of resources to support services more directly related to survival (food delivery, medical care, disaster relief, etc.); dwindling fossil fuel and other rare earth components necessary to create, deliver, and power products; and perhaps even intentional efforts to draw down our collective energy use to slow the rate of global warming (for more details see Friedemann 2021).
4 Already in 2021 the world is facing a semiconductor chip shortage, first brought on by Taiwan’s worst drought in half a century and now likely to continue as companies relocated to the increasingly drought-stricken southwestern United States (with such droughts being consequences, likely at least in part, of global warming) (Calma 2021; Gartenberg 2021).