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.