digital implications,  onlinepivot

The fake online vs in-person culture war


If there’s one thing we’ve learnt over the past few years, it’s that the media and politicians love a fake culture war. There are several reasons for this: distraction (“Hey, why were you partying when we were all observing lockdown?” “Don’t worry about that, what about trans women using ladies loos eh?”); diverting blame (“Why is the NHS so underfunded?” “It’s all those greedy doctors”); making people feel superior sells (“Young people can’t afford houses” “Young people don’t work hard and save like you did”).

No group is safe from a culture war it seems: migrants, women, POC, young people, LGBT people, poor people, liberals, etc. So, it’s no surprise I guess that ‘being online’ would get caught in the net. For those of us in ed tech this comes in two guises: home working and online/hybrid education.

We’ve seen that after being the means that effectively saved education during the online pivot, it has now become the enemy. It’s strange the way this narrative repeats – front line workers were all praised during the pandemic, but are now often pilloried for being greedy (train workers, nurses) or lazy (teachers). That gratitude, respecting everyone attitude sure didn’t last long did it? So, having worked hard to help education keep on track, many educational technologists found themselves rewarded with a ruffle of the hair and a “thanks, now it’s time for the adults to take over” response. HEIs, educators and educational technologists were derided for not running back to the campus quickly enough. And in general any online learning was deemed to be inferior now that we’re back to the real thing.

This is also being played out in most sectors with regards to virtual or hybrid working. Unsurprisingly, Victorian turd monitor, Jacob Rees-Mogg, declared that civil servants must all return to the office full time (the mistrust that they were actually working otherwise was a special thank-you for all their hard work during the pandemic). Even Elon Musk, the tech-bro’s Gordon Ramsey, demanded that Tesla staff return to the office or ‘pretend to work somewhere else” (he really is the asshole’s asshole).

The message is clear – online is pretend, in-person is real. Of course, it’s a false dichotomy, aimed at provoking the reactions I mentioned at the outset. But nevertheless, it is a narrative that is easy (see this more innocent Transport for Wales ad for a version of it). And simple narratives are powerful for many people, so even if everyone involved knows that it’s nonsense, you can still end up spending a lot of your time refuting it (for example, responding to monitoring about face to face time, or writing pointless blog posts).

I don’t have anything profound to say here, but the combination of online learning and online working (whether wholly or hybrid) is likely to give this culture war momentum. And for those of us in ed tech, it’s a storm we will be at the centre of, so be prepared to have rational, well thought arguments to counter it. And then for those to be completely ignored.


  • Alan Levine

    Maybe not profound but important and utterly depressing.

    Return to the office (consuming transport time and burning fossil fuel) to sit in a chair working online and attending video meetings. Gahhh.

  • Lisa M. Lane

    I retired from 33 years of full-time teaching earlier this month, several years before I planned to, partly because our college forced profs back on-site (despite lower on-site enrollment) and, more importantly, kept apologizing to the public for “having to take things online” and behaving just as you’ve noted here. This was after many of us had been working with online pedagogy since 1997, with dedicated profs and staff making our online classes great. Disheartening isn’t the word for it–I felt the last 20+ years of my work being devalued.

    • mweller

      Wow, that does sound depressing Lisa. As yous ay, it’s not just that the work during the pandemic has been dismissed, but now all online we’ve ever done is somehow second rate.

      • Lisa M. Lane

        Perhaps it was to be expected; I’m not sure we ever really changed enough people’s minds about what distance learning was and could be. The pandemic made online seem to be an emergency measure rather than a mature method that was available, valuable, and for many people better than attending a campus. The “get back to real life” response to the pandemic has made meaningful online connections seem not only second-rate, but, as you note, unreal.

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