By Robert Porter & Sarah Keeshan

A lone university professor walks across an emphatically deserted university campus: his casual shorts dissonant under a more formal button-down shirt and blazer. He walks into a darkened, empty lecture hall, arranges his teaching materials, and sits down facing an AI webcam to begin his class. He cues the countdown to the start of the live-streamed lecture and begins to talk directly into the camera – no powerpoint, no blackboard – just a man looking down the lens, oblivious to the students on the other end, broadcasting knowledge into the digital void.

Clement Gonzalez’ 2013 film As It Used To Be has perhaps never felt so relevant. With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing lockdown and isolation for so many worldwide, digital communication has become the default for many people, whether for work, teaching, or social gatherings. With the continued shutdown of university campuses, and the decision by many to hold exclusively virtual classes in the fall of 2020, and likely the winter of 2021, this near future of 2037 where everyone communicates via webcam and teaching is a consumable product, rather than a dynamic, relational interaction, is a reality faced by many people now.

Pandemic realities have brought pre-existing debates about the virtues (and failings) of online teaching to the fore, and Gonzalez’s film resonates in these conversations as well.  As his professor begins to lecture with something of a sigh, the unexpected occurs: a student enters the classroom, and accidentally sets off a minor revolution in his teaching. His instinctual reaction of confusion (“Are you lost?” “Are you looking for someone perhaps?” “Don’t you know this lecture is broadcast online?”) reveals his own assumption that, whether by mistake or misunderstanding, she would not choose to be physically present if she realized that she had the choice.  And he’s not entirely wrong; she is only there because her WIFI is down. The implicit assumption of the superiority (or irresistible attractiveness) of tech-facilitated learning echoes loudly in policies and practices being implemented today.

And yet, the unexpected human contact – and the student’s physical presence in the classroom – transforms the educational model. Soon he is writing on the black board (“I haven’t done this in years”) and moving in and out of the camera’s view: his teaching now facilitated by the physical space of the lecture hall rather than constrained by the eye of the camera. As the student engages with the lecture, the professor becomes increasingly animated, and you can see the passion in teaching that he once had before it was lost to the transition to broadcasting lectures online.

He returns for the next class in a two-piece suit, and as he looks expectantly to the door of his lecture hall and starts his lecture, students start filing in and he continues revived: striding out of camera’s focus to write on the blackboard as he undertakes a new lecture.

It’s hard not to empathize for everyone involved in this near-future scene. Teachers and professors across Canada have been teaching remotely since the middle of March, and the energy drain of technology shows in both the burnout of students as well as their educators. Even more fundamentally, both the pandemic and Gonzalez’s film invite us to consider the purpose and nature of education outside of the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in. Is knowledge/education a commodity that we provide, purchase, and consume?  Or, as Gonzalez proposes, is learning fundamentally shaped by dynamic, interactive relationship?  And if it is indeed the latter, can transactional online learning truly facilitate that? Gonzalez – and millennia of pre-industrial philosophies of learning – would suggest not.

You can find Gonzalez’ As It USed To Be here.