Peter Taylor’s 1996 writings on the pedagogical challenges facing online learning find a strange contemporary relevance since covid forced a large majority of post-secondary courses to migrate to online delivery. Central to Taylor’s thesis (1996) is that online learning disrupts the “taken-for-granted” interactions between the material and social aspects of education. In many ways, University-based instruction is still seen in a traditional light where knowledge is built socially, via discussions and interactions amongst students and scholars – a vision of education that is also very prevalent in most Harry Potter series (Johnson, 2015), except for the unfortunate encounter with Dolores Umbridge. This sociality involves reciprocal communications – and thus, some level of shared power – between learners and teachers. Furthermore, Taylor (1996) illustrates that sociality, typically relegated to the periphery of scholars’ attention, is actually crucial to the central mission of higher education. He then argues that online learning disrupts these social conventions, consequently impeding the educational process of knowledge building and sharing. In his words, “what was once border [social aspects of learning] now becomes centre.” (Taylor, 1996, p.76).
Some online learning supporters have suggested that virtual learning environments are, by design, necessarily more student-centered than face-to-face instruction. To those, Taylor (1996) responds that, to the contrary, the shift to online learning has reinforced a “curriculum-centered” educational approach at least in part because the context in which education takes place has not been thoroughly considered in pedagogical decisions. This content vs. context dichotomy is clearly represented in Dolores Umbridge’s approach to Defence against the dark arts teaching. Indeed, it is clear that she and the Ministry of Magic endorse a “risk-free” and content-heavy approach to education:
“Using defensive spells? […] Well, I can’t imagine any situation arising in my classroom that would require you to use a defensive spell, Miss Granger.” (Rowling, 2003, p. 218)
However, their theoretical and disembodied method fails to take into consideration the out-of-school environment in which students live: one where the dark arts are alive and gaining strength. This anxiolytic context – not too different from a global pandemic, really – clearly influences students’ interests, motivations, and social interactions. Yet, these students’ characteristics are sadly ignored at the expense of teacher-centred methods dictated by “Ministry-trained educational experts” (Rowling, 2003, p.218). As a result, the learning outcomes and methods described by Dolores Umbridge definitely “offer students an impoverished world stripped of social and cultural support” (p.69), one of Taylor’s (1996) main fears with regard to virtual learning.
Taylor (1996) also highlights that students’ autonomy, a critical aspect of academic success, has traditionally been supported by informal – almost invisible – social interactions between students and instructors. This status quo has obviously been shaken up with the recent pandemic and I personally witness students who are disproportionately anxious, overwhelmed, disoriented, and lonely compared to previous cohorts. Let’s be clear: I believe that many students are adequately equipped to navigate the demands and expectations of online learning. However, I think at-risk students are more alienated and isolated than they previously were. Similarly, I also feel increasingly powerless to adequately guide these students due to increased workload and the constraints of online communication. In other words, the ever-expanding need for personal, sensitive, and timely communication is in direct conflict with the limited human and technical resources currently available to online teachers. Put together, this discordance aligns with Taylor’s (1996) fears that, under the current conditions, online learning disrupts social tissues in higher education, puts additional pressures on both students and instructors, and thus may negatively affect the educational experience and outcomes.
Johnson, M. C. (2015). Wands or Quills? Lessons in Pedagogy from Harry Potter. In CEA Forum 44, 2, 75-91. College English Association.
Rowling, J.K. (2003). Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Vancouver: Raincoast Books.
Taylor, Peter G. (1996). Pedagogical challenges of open learning: Looking to borderline issues. In E. McWilliam & P.G. Taylor (eds) Pedagogy, Technology and the Body (pp.59-77). New York: Peter Lang.