Reflections on Online Learning

Well, I’ve missed you.
The last six (or so) months has been a really intense, very contemplative time. I’m both learning online (in the MALAT program) and teaching online (in my job for Selkirk).
Doing both at the same time has really been enlightening – looking in one direction as a student and the other as an instructor has led me to some really profound empathetic understandings of what our students are facing in an all-online atmosphere.

Let me start by telling you that I’m not new to being online. Not new to learning this way, not new to connecting this way. I started an online store in 2001, and still have wonderful friends that I met through that process. Alongside that I was part of the executive in a national non-profit, of whom I never physically met the other members – and still am in regular contact with some of those folks.
I had the privilege of moderating online communities, and made connections through blogging in the 7 years I had that business. I count some of the people I met in those years among my best friends.
In these days of Zoom and video conferencing? I’m an early adopter. Camera on, sound on, breakout spaces here, chatterfalls there, working in collaborative documents with people since the days of TitanPad and EtherPad and bringing those experiences into the synchronous online experience now that we can work in Docs and Slides and OneDrive.
I’ve hired people through video interviews, and presented to large groups very tech-heavy presentations.
I say this to let you know that I’m not a neophyte when it comes to creating meaningful connections in digital spaces. And yet, something happened this last week that has given me pause. . .

We do synchronous meetings regularly in the MALAT program. As a co-student, I recently participated in one of these meetings. It was an interesting meeting, one in which we were sharing really relevant perspectives around the role of questions in our work as facilitators – fascinating stuff, right?

Camera on, microphone on, I made a social gaffe. Like a REAL one. I could see other people (in their video feeds) looking away, looking uncomfortable – and my hurried, not-so-articulate ask for help was followed up with an uncomfortable silence (uncomfortable for me, for sure, but aren’t we all in uncomfortable silences online from time to time these days?). A particularly socially skillful member of our group pitched in to shift the topic and move the conversation forward (I’ll be eternally grateful to her for this!) as I truly wanted to sink into the floor (or have an ‘unstable connection’).

I didn’t go to this week’s synchronous session. Even though it promised to be amazing (I watched the video. It was.).


If we’d been in a classroom space, actually sharing physical space, this would have been recoverable. I would have, during a break, asked people around me, “what happened there?” and had the opportunity to share that I’d had a moment of extreme self-consciousness, seeing myself through the video feed as I was talking and experiencing enough dissociation that I was not articulate and put my foot firmly in my mouth. IF I’d been in a room with other people, we likely would have laughed about it, others would relate their own uncomfortable stories, and we would have moved on with a global recognition that we are all human, that speaking out is HARD. That we want to take intellectual risks, and sometimes our mouths run ahead of our heads.

What actually happened? An amplified feeling of dissociation and disconnection. Me, here, in my kid’s converted room/office, second and third guessing the ways in which I’d let my group down.
There was no option for reparation, normalization, or laughter.

I don’t share this to look for sympathy.

I share this because I’m thinking of my own students – the ones who are not as confident in online spaces as I am, the ones for whom learning online is a new, and possibly unwelcome, circumstance.

All the things I’m learning about these days talk about the creation of Social, Cognitive and Teaching presences to build a great online learning experience. We want to make the social piece of our learning spaces emotionally safe so that students can take cognitive (learning) risks and push themselves to new places.

How do we create safe social spaces for our students? We really can’t. They have to do it themselves, through having some kind of back channel. The place where we, as instructors, do not see their interactions. I don’t have a back channel with the people that I was in that breakout room with, so can’t debrief, can’t socially recover. So – how can I expect my own students to react with a sense of emotional safety and share in class? At least when we were in a physical classroom together, they could choose where they sat. They could find themselves in the same group of people, build connections with those people, and debrief with them.

Videoconferencing pushes our students into random groups. Even though we warn them, it’s abrupt. There’s no finishing your sentence as the instructor starts to speak again, there’s being yanked back to the main group unceremoniously because the time in the space ends.

I’ve gained tremendous empathy for my own students through this experience. Monday I will encourage them (again) to build their backchannel. To use it, and not just about school-related things. To connect with each other through whatever means is easiest and makes the most sense to them. To remind them that their peers are their greatest resource – that they’ll meet them again and again in the workplace, and that it is worth creating these connections.

After all, some of them will be wonderful connections that they will have for the rest of their lives.

One Comment Add yours

  1. todd says:

    Thanks for this! Such a powerful story with multiple important connections.

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