10 Siberian Syndrome in Online Learning

Impulses for utilising the experiences of Ira Shor with young adult learners

Natalie Shaw

In a milestone work of critical pedagogy, Ira Shor offered his experiences of teaching the topic of “utopia” to inner city working-class youth in his book When Students Have Power (Shor, 1996). Introducing the term “Siberian Syndrome” (Shor, 1996, p. 14) for the way that students acted in response to established power systems in education they had experienced so far, Shor’s narrative traces the possibilities of “escaping Siberia” (Shor, 1996, p. 61) through a disruption of the power dynamics that usually frame the teacher-student interaction, casting both in mutually reinforcing roles that they find hard to escape. Shor’s core motivation in attempting to break free from entrenched behaviours and teacher-student interactions lies in his concern about a ‘high tide of conservativism’ (Shor, 1996, p. xi), which he sees connected to the ‘unreasonable order of things’ (Shor, 1996, p. x): students’ acceptance of their prescribed role of powerless recipients whilst purportedly being led to intellectual freedom through the education they are receiving.

In this text, I will attempt to transpose Ira Shor’s experience to the enforced sudden shift to online teaching during the 2020/2021 COVID-19 pandemic, drawing on my experiences within a small teacher international training programme at a university in the Northern Netherlands. The young adult learners of this programme are undergraduate student-teachers that aspire to work in international education, and our students have a broad range of nationalities and background experiences.

After a short sketch of the background of my own online teaching experience, I will summarise some of the main points of Shor’s experiences, highlighting key dynamics and insights that Shor found to be at work in his particular situation. Based on these insights, I will offer thoughts about how an escape from Siberia may be affected in educational programmes that suddenly find themselves in the situation of having to shift from face-to-face instruction to offering educational activities online. In doing so, I am fully aware of the many difficulties encountered by students who suddenly find themselves being taught via a screen, such as the lack of empathy and personal connection (García-Pérez, Santos-Delgado & Buzón-García, 2016), the need for a careful look at the intercultural aspects of digital learning (Resta & Laferrière, 2015), and concerns about other dimensions of equity, both in a very material and in a sociological sense (Willems, Farley & Campbell,  2019).

My intention in writing this text is not to negate that these issues exist; nor to suggest that education is ever free of bias or fraught power relations that continue to marginalise large groups of its participants. Rather, I would like to engage in a thought experiment that takes inspiration from Ira Shor in considering whether it is possible to view an unexpected shift to online teaching as a critical pedagogical opportunity. Such a view attempts to take into account the perspective of staff (Willems, 2019) as well as students and tries to offer a path of agency for both lecturers and students in a situation that can feel disempowering.

Digi-Buddies, Infant Hybrid Pedagogies, Rotations, and Other Attempts at “Doing Online”

When the measures regarding the COVID-19 pandemic were taking effect in Spring 2020, our university programme was largely inexperienced with any form of online education. Training teachers for international schools, we believe, is best achieved through engaging in dynamic, face-to-face learning experiences that foster a sense of community, much like the sense of community we would like to see students creating in their future places of work around the globe. However, in a spirit of flexibility and with a willingness to model rising to challenges, our staff took to the requirements of mainly synchronous online learning generally more or less enthusiastically. What Willems (2019) sketches out was true for our faculty as well: large differences existed. Some staff members had had extensive training and/or experiences in using technology in both teaching and learning; others embraced technology in their everyday life and felt therefore confident to attempt the use of new systems; yet other staff members were more reticent in their approach to technology, both privately and professionally. As an established and committed community of practice, we aimed at supporting one another, which occasionally led to a flurry of recommendations sent to our inboxes by savvy colleagues who were trying out the latest in terms of digital pedagogy. Other colleagues shyly mentioned that they had just discovered how to create a word cloud with the students. Our students, on the whole, were forgiving of our enthusiastic overkill in sessions where no less than 10 online tools were deployed, and equally supportive in sessions where a lecturer simply talked for 2 hours, as in a regular lecture hall, without any noticeable adaptations to the online medium.

As a faculty that embraces design thinking (see e.g., Gallagher & Thordarson, 2020) as a leading idea for its pedagogy, the overall approach we applied to the situation was that of rapid prototyping (Dow & Klemmer, 2011). We began by assigning students to one another as digi-buddies, identifying students who were willing to connect online learning peers to the classroom in real time. Efforts were undertaken to train the students willing to act as digi-buddies, as we recognised that this was a rare opportunity in honing pedagogical skills for those willing to adapt this role. This involved helping the students who were still being physically present and who volunteered to connect others digitally in how they could do so without compromising their own learning process due to being preoccupied by supporting others.

At the same time, other subject leaders chose to divide the teaching tasks, assigning some colleagues to teach the few remaining students that were physically present, whilst others guided the ever-growing group of students learning online. Both student groups arose spontaneously, with some students simply stuck in remote corners of the world and others marooned in our small Dutch university town. When it came to presence teaching, further challenges were presented by the varied room capacities on our small campus: only two rooms allowed the accommodation of a full tutor group, oftentimes the organising unit for instruction. Careful rotations were devised that would allow tutor groups to occasionally be together in a session with one member of faculty, whilst at other times being divided across different smaller rooms for pre- or post-tasks. From week to week, we tried to gather feedback from the students about their experiences and attempted to make changes where possible. When students let us know that the pre- and post-tasks were less successful because they missed the clear leadership an instructor would offer, we worked with students in higher years of the programme to provide the scaffolding the students professed to miss.

Colleagues with professional experience or training in digital pedagogy offered support. Others scoured educational publications from around the globe and updated the team on developments that were successful in other parts of the world, providing springboards for brainstorming sessions and practical solutions. Overall, as a team we performed rather well, offering both practical and pedagogical support to one another whenever this was necessary.

Connecting to Ira Shor: Siberians, Now and Then

In his account of the experiences surrounding teaching a university course to White working-class students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, Ira Shor sketches out a journey from framing the problematic initial situation to a disturbance of the status quo, arriving at new possibilities that were able to transcend the boundaries of the previously possible.

Analysing the initial situation, Shor introduces the term ‘Siberian Syndrome’ (Shor, 1996, p. 14) to illustrate students’ tendencies to choose seating that is located as far as possible from the teacher. In doing so, Shor explains, students respond to what they had learned to accept as the reality of the educational system: ‘unilateral authority for the teacher and a curriculum evading critical thought’ (Shor, 1996, p. 13). When describing the syndrome, Shor is careful to point out that this is not due to inherent characteristics of the students but due to painful and repeated encounters with an educational system that is ignorant of, and remains uninterested in, students’ personal backgrounds, aspirations, achievements, and struggles. The teacher, equipped with the institutional authority to exercise structural and procedural control concerning the syllabus, methods, and evaluation of students’ work, meets students who are ‘[s]chooled to follow orders and to fit into lesser places’ (Shor, 1996, p. 14).

Shor connects the result of students’ educational ‘socialization’ (Shor, 1996, p. 15) with a sensitive analysis of students’ emotional states in response to the experiences they have had prior to arriving in his classroom. Both, teacher and students, find themselves entrenched in roles that are constructed for them: whilst rejecting the dynamics present, students also reproduce the teacher’s dominion by expecting him to behave with authority. This in turn permits students to resist in ways that have honed over long and oftentimes painful years of schooling. Shor also observes that students construct a dimension of unreality when it comes to their schooling experience, suggestive of a truer identity that is enacted in contexts beyond and far from the classroom (Shor, 1996).

Following the call to create a relationship that overcomes what is initially seen as ‘antagonistic’ (Shor & Freire, 1987), Shor proceeds to carefully move towards addressing the power imbalances framing the educational situation in his classroom. In doing so, Shor recognises the impossibility to do so without carefully scaffolding the process and exercising the authority of his teacher role to shape the negotiations for a more democratic approach to the course. Both student skills as well as student attitudes are obstacles to an immediate role-reversal, as Shor observes: students may resist the unfamiliar role of the teacher and the more active role this arrangement provides for them, whilst at the same time being not yet skilled enough in taking power in a way that would foster their learning process (Shor, 1996). In the words of Shor, students ‘know how to follow or to frustrate authority […], but not how to assume authority’ (Shor, 1996, p. 20).

A good 30 years after Ira Shor’s experiences in inner city classrooms in Staten Island, his observations still ring true of the educational reality I experienced in my present university classrooms. For each of the courses I have taught since entering the higher education teaching profession 5 years ago, I could readily name the inhabitants of Siberia: the students who prefer to hide away at the back of the room, having learnt to be sceptical of an educational system that appears to recognise ways of being and knowing that do not reflect what these students may be able to offer. Their experiences and attitudes indicate that they clearly detect the workings of a hidden curriculum not constructed in their favour (Smith, 2013) and are willing to assume the roles they are relegated to.

The oscillation between deference and resistance that Shor describes is familiar, as is the description of students who seek out the front of house seats reserved for ‘the few students who share their teacher’s enthusiasm’ (Shor, 1996, p. 13). In my case and in that of my colleagues, the accuracy with which these observations still holds true today must concern us twofold. We should not only be concerned about the power dynamics and neoliberal education systems that faithfully reproduce these modern-day inhabitants of academic Siberia. As teacher educators, the realisation that we are working with potential ‘agents of social change’ (Bourn, 2016, p. 63) in the making is both exhilarating and frightening. If we succeed, we are able to foster a new generation of democratic educators that will in turn be able to affect their students. If we fail, we may have to face the realisation that we are yet another cog in the wheel of an educational machinery that generates new blueprints of the status quo for generation after generation.

Siberia 3.0: Tracing Patterns of Siberian Syndrome in Online Learning

Reflecting upon the experience of nearly a full academic year of more or less online teaching activities, it is startling to realise how readily Siberia appears to have migrated online in my teaching context. In an environment that is both conceptually and spatially removed from the regular classroom (Jones & Lloyd, 2013), patterns of familiar behaviour persist with surprising regularity. Online, the front row students have transformed into those vocal in chat functions when encouraged to comment; those willing to raise their virtual hand and volunteer a comment; those happy to put on their camera to signal their presence. The back of the physical room, it appears, translates to silent attendance in digital spaces, a blank screen, and sparse participation in discussions, be they conducted through voice contributions or via the chat. Siberian Syndrome students may request for lessons to be recorded and opt for the safety of having the content represented without the danger of being asked to participate more actively—after all, the back of the physical room allows a certain safety not afforded by a list of participants in the online environment, where anybody may be called upon at any time.

The distance may be explained by differences that persist in the real world and that effectively contribute to the creation of Siberia in the first place. Young people from academic homes of the middle classes most readily display the habitus of ‘eager student’ in the analogue classroom and feel comfortable in the presence of the teacher, whilst those whose backgrounds may have prepared them less for the interactions in academia shy away from too personal a contact, afraid of having their perceived lack of understanding revealed, suffering from social anxieties, or having other reasons for being more withdrawn. During the pandemic, many students resided with their families. Thus, in digital spaces, the literal background of someone’s on camera presence may have been felt by students as indicative of their socio-economic and cultural background as a whole. Even prior to the pandemic, Gilliard (2017) offered an eloquent and lucid criticism of the workings of capitalism and surveillance in digital spaces that lead to a marginalisation within our student population.

Put placatively: The front-row inhabitants most often revealed themselves sitting in front of richly furnished bookcases, reportedly sitting in parents’ offices or other work furnished with the signifiers of a middle class life sharing affinity with academia. The online Siberians most often preferred to not present on camera. On occasions where an on-camera presence could not be avoided, other spaces became visible: more cramped housing, others sharing the same space, fewer signs indicating ‘academia’. To be clear: neither cramped housing nor the presence of others in a learning space necessarily indicate that a household may not be academically versed. However, my point is that many students might have concluded, based on a perception of still active hidden curriculum workings, that their backgrounds (both literal and figurative) did not measure up to a somewhat nebulous, but nevertheless persistent standard. And, to be fair: amongst colleagues co-teaching the same courses and witnessing students’ on-screen backgrounds, we did occasionally comment on the literal backgrounds of some students. Who is to say how many evaluations have entered our subconscious, influenced by a pernicious bias that our transformatively engaged, conscious teacher selves would prefer not to have? Who is to say how many digital Siberians perceived this with clarity and preferred to not expose themselves further to our evaluating gaze?

As Shor (1996) suggests, these responses are not without solid grounding: rather, they speak about students’ prior experiences with a reality that, whilst professing to be inclusive, often does not escape its inherent biases. As Zambito (2020) argues, bias in online learning is most effectively confronted by instructors willing to acknowledge their own biases. In my experience, this opportunity arose only sporadically, with individual colleagues reflecting upon their perceptions of students’ engaged presence, perceived apathy, or their personal responses to the students’ visible backgrounds during casual professional exchanges. As a faculty, more learning opportunities could have been taken in reflecting more structurally about the effects these perceptions had on the framing of the teaching and learning situation in the initially unfamiliar online realm.

Arrival times may also indicate a degree of Siberianism: whether presence learning classrooms or in the digital space, front row students tend to arrive early, eager to share a few minutes of conversation with the teacher. Late arrivals oftentimes populate the back spaces of the classroom, apparently content to slip in just before a session gets underway. In our digital spaces, the same students arrived silently or late, and thus missed out on the interactions that maintain a semblance of connectivity in times when real-life encounters are few and far between.

When Life Hands You Lemons: “Untested Feasibilities” in the Digital Realm

Shor reflects upon the difficulty of disrupting routines that are ingrained after a lifetime spent as students in the educational system and seeks to locate ‘untested feasibility[ies]’ (Shor, When students have power: Negotiating authority in a critical pedagogy, 1996, p. 3). This concept, adopted from Freire (Shor & Freire, 1987), describes the experiences that may be possible when educators extend the boundaries of the present and attempt to widen the scope of possibilities together with their students.

Many educators worldwide have struggled with making the unexpected pedagogical and technological shift towards online teaching (Willems, 2019). The sudden migration to online learning has once more revealed equity issues surrounding not only access to the necessary infrastructure and digital literacy (Ragnedda, 2020), but also the equity of digital content itself with regards to culture, bias, and language (Willems, Farley & Campbell, 2019). However, what I would like to suggest is that we may also be framing the experience in a new light. What I would like to put forward is the possibility to view the temporary migration to digital learning as a rare opportunity, an ‘untested feasibility’ in the Freirean sense.

As such, this suggestion is reminiscent of the adage that the lemons of having to rapidly adapt to a global pandemic may be viewed as lemonade in the making. Transposing the saying to the educational context, the following design question arises:  How might we harness the possibilities offered by a migration to online learning whilst retaining a critical awareness of the barriers that persist with regards to equal access and content in the digital realm?

When Jones and Lloyd (2013) remark on the absence of a sense of physical space in online learning environments, this remark seems to offer an implicit invitation to seize upon the absence of physical space as a disruption of the usual patterns of teacher-student interaction. Naturally, the power dynamics that students are aware of and that Shor (1996) and Shor and Freire (1987) acknowledge as an inescapable fact of the educational context still persist. Students are well aware of the fact that teachers retain the power to assess their learning and to award grades at the end of the course. Yet other well-honed tropes may at least be minimally disrupted, and afford us an angle of attack for widening the cracks.

When Shor (1996) writes ‘As the teacher, I’m supposed to go to the front and assert the authority vested in my position’ (ibid., p. 16), it does not take much imagination to transpose this action to what students expect in an online environment. Naturally, the expectation is that the teacher or lecturer will take the lead in the educational process, outline the aim of the lesson, structure the process, and demarcate the fault lines between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. However, utilising the question posed by Jones and Lloyd: ‘Which way is up?’ (ibid., in the title), we may present students with a similar question: Where, exactly, is the front from which they expect us to lead? How does this physical space translate to actions in the digital world? What expectations do they usually have of a teacher, and how may these differ when learning happens online? The shift from physical to online spaces, if utilised, may serve to facilitate the delicate process that Shor (1996) outlines in his book: the careful negotiation of a more democratic curriculum in which power, agency, and responsibility are shared and established between the participants of the educational experience.

As lecturers and students, we brought and still bring different skills and understanding to our shared learning situation. Whereas we educators possessed procedural expertise, planning and mapping out the learning trajectories, students supplied expertise of a different kind: pragmatic understanding of the situations of their fellow students and oftentimes very effective solutions to complex problems of connectivity that were rooted in their more complex understanding of how students are connected amongst one another. On occasion, students have proven more skilled than us lecturers in navigating some of the technology available to us, reminding us that the role of expert carries many facets: knowledge expert, procedural expert, skills expert, and so forth. This realisation alone can function as an invitation to critically reflect with students upon these facets of expertise and foster the realisation that lecturers may not always be experts, and students may well have expertise in areas that they had previously not recognised as areas of strength. This realisation itself can work as a springboard towards establishing the ‘dialogical relationship’ (Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 92) that is at the heart of Freire’s democratic vision.

Further, as Shor (1996) poignantly illustrates, the disruption of the teacher-student relationship in an actual classroom is not without its discomforts. The physical discomfort when Shor situates himself amongst the students of Siberia culminates in students removing themselves from the vicinity of the teacher and choosing seats further away from Shor’s embodied authority. In an online learning situation, it is possible to disrupt in a way that appears somewhat gentler, less physically confronting, and yet possibly still as effective. The equivalent to Shor’s repositioning may take the form of a carefully scaffolded stepping back of the lecturer from shaping the lesson to her agenda. Alternatively, it may be orchestrated as a lecturer choosing to join the breakout groups where inhabitants of ‘deep Siberia’ (Shor, 1996, p. 28) are gathered, and listening without taking charge of the discussion.

When students begin to reflect on the legacy of time spent in the educational system that provides restrictive roles for the marginalised, this process can elicit strong emotions. Anger, frustration, bitterness, and sadness may result from a consideration of how their own position at present has been influenced by societal workings beyond their control; all the while holding them accountable via the neoliberal trope of their own responsibility. Zembylas (2012) warns that critical pedagogy may be in danger of overlooking the significance of emotion and suggests ways of working with emotional knowledge without avoiding ‘pedagogic discomfort’ (Zembylas, 2012, p. 8). When educators scaffold reflection on power imbalances and equity as a precursor to dialogical relationships with students, it may be argued that doing so in physically present classrooms allows for a more empathic approach of recognising the effects this subject matter has on students. On the other hand, young adult learners can easily resent being put in a vulnerable position in front of their peers and may welcome the distance of a well-scaffolded online approach, where discussions and reflections are elicited and then carefully followed up on without the immediacy of a physical classroom environment where strong emotions may make students uncomfortable in front of others.

In Conclusion

In moving education from a physical to a digital plane, we have not left behind any of the issues that have plagued educational systems for generations: a neoliberal drive for efficiency, a narrowing of curricula, a heightened focus on outcomes at the expense of providing space for critical thought and dissent, a lack of cultural responsivity. However, we may have gained a unique opportunity in forcing open the miniscule cracks that emerge when education suddenly and unexpectedly migrates from presence to online learning.

Opportunities may present themselves in reconsidering and problematising the ways of being in the physical classroom from the vantage point of the online platform, an unfamiliar situation less fraught with finely-honed patterns of student-teacher interaction. The online learning environment is far from a power-free vacuum where everything is possible. However, we may feel invited to seize the opportunity to question some of the behaviours we usually associate with the role of teachers and students and examine them afresh. Where, figuratively, is the front of the classroom in the online space? What behaviours do we associate with leading from the front? How might we transform these into the beginnings of a democratically negotiated curriculum?

Not all these disruptions have consistently happened or been seized upon in my own experience with online teaching. Initially, the temptation to simply put something out there that would keep students gainfully occupied towards achieving the learning outcomes was oftentimes the best we could produce in a short amount of time. However, the reflections presented here are certainly an inspiration towards framing moments of disruption not as an inconvenience, but as a unique and rare opportunity to upend the status quo in a more natural way than the path that Shor (1996) sketches out.

One big realisation is that the sudden shift to online learning has exposed ourselves to one another in quite unexpected ways. As a learning community, we have seen one another’s living rooms, kitchens, sofas, desks, wall decorations, family photos, pinboards, partners, dogs, cats, and once, memorably,  rabbits. We have jointly laughed at hilarious incidents when microphones were left unmuted to reveal a student singing loudly, and marvelled at moments such as a student remarking ‘Natalie, I think there is a policeman outside of your houseboat’ (To clarify: the officer in question was trying to attract my attention to question those in the neighbourhood about a break-in in a nearby shop that had occurred the night before). Jointly, we have shared anecdotes such as the memorable attempt of a grandparent repeatedly trying to summon their grandchild to lunch by calling their name loudly—all whilst the student in question was presenting their final work to us via Teams at the same time.

As lecturers and students slowly return to the face-to-face learning situation we are accustomed to, a big question remains. How will we transform the fact that we all gained immediate insights into one another’s lives into a cornerstone of more equitable, culturally responsive teaching opportunities, as suggested by Hammond (2015), into a more democratically negotiated classroom as advocated for by Shor (1996)?  Of course, we could collectively choose to pretend that the past years of the pandemic and its sudden shift to online teaching had been nothing more than an aberration, and ignore the insights that we had gained into one another’s lives, the moments where we suddenly found ourselves relying much more forcefully on one another’s expertise and knowledge.

To be sure: not all members of our faculty are equally comfortable with regarding the miniscule cracks that have opened up in our usual roles of lecturer and student as worth expanding and widening. Some may be grateful to return to an established routine where everyone plays their clearly mapped-out role. However, most of us are at least comfortable with opening up dialogue around this shift: What has this time taught us, collectively? How can we harness these changes to arrive at a classroom that is more equitable? Most importantly, what do students think about this, and how would they like to see us continue together? As Shor (1996) suggests, we may specifically choose to sit amongst the students once again huddled at the back of our physical classroom to ask these pivotal questions.

Rather than having to create a situation akin to the Freirian concept of an ‘untested feasibility’ (Shor, 1996, p. 3), it literally fell into educators’ laps. For those amongst us, myself included, who feel that they have not yet maximised the opportunities, it is not too late. Stepping back into physical classrooms after the end of the COVID-19 enforced period of rapid-development online learning presents another opportunity for disrupting patterns of Siberian Syndrome and disturbing the status quo.


Bourn, D. (2016). Teachers as agents of social change. International Journal of Development Education and Global Learning, 7(3), 63-77.

Dow, S. P, & Klemmer, S. R. (2011). The efficacy of prototyping under time constraints. In H. Plattner, C. Meinel, & L. Leifer (Eds), Design thinking: understand – improve – apply (pp. 111-130). Springer.

Gallagher, A. & Thordarson, K. (2020). Design thinking in play: an action guide for educators. ASCD.

García-Pérez, R., Santos-Delgado, J.-M. & Buzón-García, O. (2016). Virtual empathy as digital competence in education 3.0. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 13, 13-30.

Gilliard, C. (2017, July 3). Pedagogy and the logic of platforms. EDUCAUSE Review. https://er.educause.edu/articles/2017/7/pedagogy-and-the-logic-of-platforms

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Corwin.

Jones, D. & Lloyd, P. (2013). Which way is up? Space and place in virtual learning environments for design. DRS Cumulus Oslo 2013 – Proceedings from the 2nd International Conference for Design Education Researchers, 1, 552–563.

Ragnedda, M. (2020). Enhancing digital equity: connecting the digital underclass. Palgrave Macmillan.

Resta, P. & Laferrière, T. (2015). Digital equity and intercultural education. Education and Information Technologies, 20(4), 743-756.

Shor, I. (1996). When students have power: Negotiating authority in a critical pedagogy. Chicago University Press.

Shor, I. & Freire, P. (1987). A pedagogy for liberation: dialogues on transforming education. Bergin & Garvey.

Smith, B. (2013). Mentoring at-risk students through the hidden curriculum of higher education. Lexington Books.

Willems, J. (2019). Digital equity: considering the needs of staff as a social justice issue. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 35(6), 150-160.

Willems, J., Farley, H. & Campbell, C. (2019). The increasing significance of digital equity in higher education: An introduction to the digital equity special issue. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 35(6), 1-8.

Zambito, V. (2020, September 11). Does bias exist in online learning? Yes, but it doesn’t have to. eLearning Industry. https://elearningindustry.com/what-need-to-know-about-bias-in-online-learning

Zembylas, M. (2012). Critical pedagogy and emotion: Working through ‘troubled knowledge’ in posttraumatic contexts. Critical Studies in Education, 54(2), 1-14.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Toward a Critical Instructional Design Copyright © by Natalie Shaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book