Everyday living, News

Virtual class

Last night I spent three strange hours in front of my MacBook. Normally, time with my MacBook is at worst obligatory (bill paying, filing tax returns, marking papers – none of which is particularly strange) and at best treasured (writing, reading, listening to music).

So – yesterday evening I co-delivered my first live online teaching session, for the Open University. I’ve taught for the OU for twelve years, and much of the contact with students has been (and continues to be) by email or through online forums (messaging spaces). And then there’s the phone and – thank goodness – there’s even still some face to face contact. That’s felt like a reasonable balance.

But the OU want to offer more real time online sessions, which I guess please the bean-counters (no venue hire, no tutor expenses etc), and so tutors and students are summoned to the virtual classroom. Many disciplines have been there already of course, Creative Writing is a late adopter of the technology. To me – and I’m not a teacher by original career, and only a part-time teacher now – this new way seems as alien as a beach holiday in the arctic (though even those may come).

I think I’m reasonably flexible for my age (I started school in 1960 and left in 1972, I’ll leave you to do the maths) and I’ve learned a lot of new things in the past 40 or so years since I left fulltime education. But I find this ‘virtual class’ experience a bit baffling.

The training for the Adobe Connect software (over the summer) was dull and didn’t seem to have much to offer someone teaching a creative subject. Imagine trying to teach painting or sculpture via an online session – then really why should writing be taught this way? The software itself is a bit clunky, and has so clearly been developed for business conferencing that it’s a little embarrassing. Who ever thought of having a ‘hand raised’ sign as well as a chat box? Just ask the question, please, in the chat box. And do we really need to herd students into virtual break out rooms? Break out in a cold sweat, I reckon.

But what’s really strange on the night is the lack of any true interaction with the students. As teacher/presenter, you sit with your headset on, speaking into what feels uncannily like a void, having switched off ‘microphone rights for students’ because if you let them speak, all hell breaks loose without eye contact and other body language to help the turn-taking.

In this silent virtual classroom, everything relies on the teacher-spiel and the PowerPoint (no good if like me you work on a Mac and the version of Flash you have is incompatible with Adobe Connect, so you’ve had to ditch your rather colourful PP at the eleventh hour) and some fairly rudimentary exchanges in the chat box. Chat in the box is like instant messaging and it takes a lot of effort from the teacher/presenter to keep it going and to prompt and facilitate exchanges at anything beyond quite a basic level.

All the rest is unknown, unseen. Outer (or inner) space.

The silences are deep and deafening and I’m not sure they’re always as productive as they’re meant to be. We all know how easy it is to be distracted by an email plopping into the inbox when we’re meant to be reading a serious article. Who’s to say all the students at my session weren’t reading Beano or The New Yorker or making their Christmas shopping lists. There’s nothing to tell you what else they’re doing as you go boldly on through your slides. Maybe they’re watching Blade Runner 2049 on the other half of their computer screen?

Ah well, I think I’m the kind of teacher who has passions, and who maybe facilitates others’ learning by responding at a physical level to being in the same room, sharing the space, discovering through interaction and intuition what’s wanted and needed.

I wouldn’t say the session was a waste of time. It was better than no session, better than no contact. And the students thanked us very much and said they found it helpful.

Call me old-fashioned – I don’t care a bit – but give me flesh and blood, in real space, for a couple of hours. Everyone knows roughly who and where they are, and sometimes they even know what else and who else is in the room. Then, quite often, magical things happen.

6 thoughts on “Virtual class”

  1. that was a very interesting post, Clare. it’s great to get a teacher’s perspective. As a blind person getting to classes can be tricky and I should welcome online ones like this, but I don’t! I tried one with The poetry School last year and although I could read the class material and send in my responses, I could not keep up with the online discussion forum and my only option was to post a couple of comments and wait until the session had finished when I could get the transcript of the discussion. I use screen reading software and it automatically jumps up to a post as it gets posted, so if I’m 30 messages down the chain I get moved right up to the top and can’t continue up the chain at my own pace. The discussion part is the online version of the classroom discussion and not being able to participate in it is like being told to stand outside the classroom and wait for the discussion to end. It obviously depends on how quicly participants comment — as the hour progressed on the Poetry School course there were, I’d estimate, two posts every 10 seconds. Maybe the system developers could enforce a time restriction, such a minimum 10 second pause after posting one comment before the next one can be sent, but I suspect that would be just as troublesome! Maybe a system could amplify the tutor’s voice so that if you said to the class to be quiet a moment that might work … or give you a keystroke in the system that would mute all incoming mic activity except for yours so that you could ask a particular person to repeat a question and could work your way around the virtual class inviting comments from people one at a time. I’m sure there must be a more manageable way to conduct online classroom sessions, but it sure needs working on! I agree that a classroom session is very different to a business meeting and should have software specifically designed for the purpose 🙂

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Giles. That must be so frustrating for you, trying to use the online discussion spaces. I know that with the software package the OU use (Adobe Connect), the chat box can be made larger or smaller, I wonder if that might help with the Poetry School set-up, so that access for vision-impaired people is a little easier?

      When lots of people are writing comments, the Adobe Connect chat box gives a message saying something like ‘multiple attendees typing’ so as the teacher/facilitator sitting there waiting for comments, one seems to wait ages to see comments and then they all come at once, like buses!

      I’m sure there are lots of teachers who know how to use such virtual classroom systems to their full potential, but as a novice in this, I’m not terribly inspired to do more of it, I must say. Plus for my own eyes (I have various problems due to past surgeries etc) I do find it wearing to sit in front of a screen without real breaks for 2+ hours. Normally I take regular breaks to rest my eyes, but you can’t do that if you’re teaching the session!

      1. It’s not so much that it’s frustrating (which it is) but it’s also worrying. If a course I was on required such virtual classroom time, I couldn’t really do it, at least not with the same level of involvement that other students would have. As a totally blind person the Adobe chat box size wouldn’t affect my experience, though to A visually impaired student with some sight it probably does. I sometimes explain it like, if you write the word Hello in 12pt times New Roman . font, when I use my screen reader it would be exactly the same as if it were in 44pt font or 4pt font. The sudden appearance of a block of comments at the same time is the effect I experienced on the Poetry School session. A human brain knows the eyes should stay focussed on the comment that is being read, and then to move up one comment at a time. However, when a website receives and posts its new comments, it effectively refreshes the page and my screen reader has no choice but to move its focus up to the top of the thread.Because a blind person is listening to the comments rather than reading them, it’s not as quick a process as skim reading to find the comments you want or need to read.

        I’m intending to return to Swansea Uni next year to study MA Creative Writing. Most universities use the computer system called Blackboard for coursework and Swansea certainly does. When I’ve spoken to the course admissions professor I’ve been happy that she’ll make sure the systems work for me, but I’ve read reports by blind students who have done courses elsewhere and the Blackboard system has not been optimised for visually impaired users and they have strugled as a result. It’s going to be an interesting experience 🙂

      2. This is so interesting, hearing how it is for you, and thank you so much for giving me these insights. I do hope your experience at Swansea is a positive one, or at least that you can work on the provision made, help them improve it if necessary. Good luck with it and do let me know how you get on. All best to you, Clare

  2. I would absolutely hate this. I can manage on Skype with one person, but even then I find it takes longer to establish trust than face to face when we read so much from each other’s micro-expressions, body language and real time responses (which Skype gives you fractionally late.) If the CWP offer online courses I certainly won’t be volunteering to teach them.

    1. Well, it’s not entirely negative, Umi, but it really is a very different kind of teaching, and feels much more like ‘delivering’ something – I suppose that it’s ok in combination with face-to-face, but the OU are gradually reducing face-to-face elements. And now we have something called ‘group tuition policy’ which means that when as a tutor you run a f2f day school, you get a cross section of students – your own and other tutors’ – so that there is no longer that vital sense of building group trust f2f for working together online.

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