‘Care in the Time of COVID-19: Learning from Virtually Connecting’s Intentionally Equitable Hospitality as Global Digital Citizenship’…by Autumm Caines and Maha Bali

What is global digital citizenship in light of the current crisis? What is its worth? Why do we need it? Just when we thought we were in a precarious place in our world with political disruptions and climate change, a new calamity has presented itself. This new blow, WHO-advised and government-led measures to slow/stop the spread of COVID-19, asks us to physically separate from one another. Although the official term is “social distancing”, the boom we are seeing to technologies and techniques that connect us through distance, shows that the social is not something that we can afford to give up – that it is indeed one of the most important things we cannot give up.

While we are asked to distance ourselves from each other, we are having a shared experience of confusion and chaos. Our schools are moving to remote instruction and work, our conferences are moving to online formats, our borders are further closing (this time, for the right reasons), and our governments scramble to improvise temporary solutions. Though this moment unites us on a global scale with shared fears, restrictions, and realities we also did not go into this moment on equal footing. For every threat of health, finance, and basic foundational structures of our societies, there are those among us who entered this moment more vulnerable than others and who will require varied types and different levels of care. And we should not forget that in a crisis, inequity is exacerbated.

At this intersection of equity and sociality over a distance, our work with Virtually Connecting over the last five years is loud in our minds. What started out as a selfish public experiment to try to virtualize social connections during an academic conference, quickly became a form of activism and public service. A public service that required digital literacy and digital citizenship and had underlying social justice goals. A public service that connected those from different corners of the globe, from diverse cultures, societies, religions, familial responsibilities, and financial situations. A public service paying special attention to the marginalized and recognizing the inequities in academic conferencing, who designs them, who can attend them, who builds social capital, and who gets excluded and left behind.

It was this focus… prioritization… preference …. through hospitality, that we soon recognized was at the heart of what we were trying to do. More than providing a technical solution for bridging an access gap, we were striving to make Virtually Connecting something that provides a supportive community that lets the more marginal groups know “we see you, we hear you, we recognize the value of you being here and we will do everything we possibly can to design and facilitate a space where your voice can be heard on your own terms, by involving you fully in designing and experiencing this process, by reframing it together as we grow”.

This framing now resonates strongly as we all pivot to emergency remote online education (where campuses are getting very sensitive about wording like “remote” and “online” – it is both!) all over the world, forced by circumstances from the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to remember all the marginalized students who will struggle with this crisis. Whether because of poorer internet infrastructure, loss of income, inaccessible online designs thrown together in a rush that don’t accommodate for various disabilities, increased family responsibilities from having kids suddenly homeschooling by force or caring for aging parents, or even just simply the impact on mental health and wellbeing, all of which will be unequally distributed locally and globally. As educators and educational developers, we are hyperaware of the added pressure and affective labor that is expected of us – and that again, we are not all equally challenged/harmed by this. No one signed up for this, but some will survive this more easily than others.

What drives Virtually Connecting is a similar hyperawareness of who is marginalized around academic conferences, and what we can do to help recenter them in spaces they have the right to be in. We termed this focus “Intentionally Equitable Hospitality” (IEH) in an article last year and though we named it and identified it, we avoided a hard definition. Hard definitions do not lend themselves to complexities and any work around equity is complex. IEH is bigger than a universal definition, it is even bigger than us; we are discovering it, evolving with it, more than defining it. For instance, in 2017 the U.S. travel bans gave our work new meaning. And we have been discovering, as Kate Bowles mentioned in her OER19 keynote, how our work may help some imagine how conferences could be different, to perhaps rethink our responsibility around our carbon footprint.

And in this moment, we are discovering how VC specifically, but also IEH more generally, is needed in the time of COVID-19. IEH is both an attitude and a way of behaving that is intentional about putting equity first in all our spaces where we host others. And its applicability to this moment in time can help us frame how we go forward from this moment on.

As educational developers, how are we prioritizing the needs of our faculty/teachers who are least familiar with technology? Are we insisting that administrators not force them to use technologies they would be too uncomfortable to use? (See Tannis Morgan’s post on using email as a teaching tool). What kind of care can we offer beyond the technical, especially to others who live completely alone and are now more isolated than ever? Can we avoid the normalization of surveillance technologies? Can we resist the scavenging corporate offers? Can we advocate for a more humane way of dealing with this crisis? How much ownership and agency can we offer faculty at a time when they may feel like they have very little control over what is happening to them?

As faculty/educators/teachers, are we aware of the technical capabilities of our students, whether they have their own devices at home, their internet speed, their family and financial situation, their learning needs? Without asking them to reveal everything, can we design kindly to ensure everyone has an opportunity to get through this in one piece? Can we remain open to the possibility that some will need support through this that is different from what we had anticipated (see Mays Imad’s touching story here)?

As a global community of educators suddenly all undergoing a similar transition in different contexts, how can we support each other to stay sane and remember what is most important? (See the continuity with care initiative by Maha Bali and Mia Zamora – starting with this crowdsourced curation on teaching online with care http://bit.ly/onlinewithcare ).

At a time of physical social distancing, we are just reminded of how important it is to keep multiple virtual channels open, to invite those most vulnerable to help design/choose those channels, and to decide for themselves what they want to do in those spaces, rather than have it imposed on them.

Virtually Connecting works because people who cannot attend many conferences chose how they wanted to participate virtually. And the VC community works across virtual spaces, text-based and asynchronous as well as video based and synchronous. Creating the right combination of these to sustain communities of educators and of students, separately or perhaps even together, might make all the difference. As long as we do it with Intentionally Equitable Hospitality.

We invite you to join our OER20 session to discover and learn about Intentionally Equitable Hospitality with us.