The Shocking Intimacy of Distance Learning

Romantic woman using laptop

For me, teaching is a dance of engagement premised on personal interaction, passion for the topic and a keen awareness of student needs in the learning moment. Years ago when I was asked to teach online I thought are you kidding me? Teach social work, which is fundamentally about relationships, online? Learning mediated through a machine? How on earth would I engage students online? How could I possibly convey my passion and ignite theirs? But perhaps most importantly I wondered, what would happen to the emotional bond that we formed through the learning/teaching partnership? I loved my students and loved interacting with them. Would I lose that?

Holding on to these questions, I learned to navigate my university’s learning management system, went to class to understand distance pedagogy and worked with instructional and graphic designers to discover the ways in which pedagogy and presentation held hands in the online environment. I then planned asynchronous learning modules that focused on a seamless presentation of content rather than creating weekly lecture-outlines chopped to fit the space and time of class meetings. This type of creating required I take an ethnographic perspective, to actually empathically see the world through the eyes of my students, see their relationships with each other, with me and with the content and to design a course that facilitated connection and growth. This meant anticipating their questions, needs, reactions, areas of struggle and potential for confusion.

Suddenly I had an enormous amount of material I could use to create their journey. In the face-to-face classroom I relied of videos we watched together (often taking valuable class time), articles and textbooks. Now I lined the learning trail with videos, blog posts, scholarly and popular articles, graphics, supplemental websites, expert opinions or papers, group assignments, practice and thought exercises, reflections and discussions—all embedded within the learning management system and accessible to students with one click. I also asked them to upload materials they found relevant to the topic, in effect, asking them to become co-creators of the learning experience.

When my classes opened I watched with eager anticipation as we moved through the activities, readings, videos and discussions. When they stopped, I stopped. When they had a question about what to do next, I was there to offer guidance. When they entered the discussion forum and responded to or posed questions, I was there to add insights and comments and to shape discourse. I was no longer the “sage on the stage” and instead moved to the side to facilitate learning and shepherd students through a learning process that privileged content and their interaction with the content.

An Unexpected Artifact: Intimacy While I feared that learning mediated through a computer would reduce the connection I shared with my students or would reduce my ability to assess their grasp of the concepts or in some way lessen the quality of the course I could not have been more wrong. Not only were the students highly engaged and active in class, but the quality of relationships that emerged through the cyber environment were deeply connective and supportive of learning. This was evident, among other places, in the discussion forum. Each week students were asked challenging questions that required them to think critically about concepts and integrate readings in reflexive discussion posts shared with the class. Their posts were thoughtful, insightful, respectful and intimate. They wrote of their own struggles with change and of empathy with their clients. They posted initial comments on Monday and added thoughts and insights through out the week. Because discussions lasted all week, the depth and breadth exceeded anything I was able to create in a face-to-face classroom during delimited time periods. Students also frequently linked articles or websites they found relevant to discourse.

But perhaps most important, students did more than share their conclusions in the discussion forum each week. They shared their processes, shared how it was they arrived at their conclusions, shared the way experiences made them feel, why they reacted the way they did, how they related one experience to another. Students’ posts were profoundly intimate not because they revealed deeply personal information (though some did at points in the class), but because they began on a different level of discourse. Public speaking is often about statements of conclusion rather than sharing of process, if for no other reason than time constraints prohibit it. But when the limits of time and space fell away, students entered a relationship that was dialogical, deeply insightful, personal – and inclusive. Each post invited the reader to step outside him or herself and see the world through a different set of eyes, a different frame of reference, a different subjectivity. And each student shared. There were no back row sitters, no students who were afraid to speak in public, no students who remained silent.

This kind of sharing created deep and close bonds between classmates. As their personalities emerged in the online environment, I felt I was really seeing or perhaps even, seeing into them as I accompanied each one through the course, continuously witnessing changes in thinking, moments of insight, mastery or struggle. It was also highly illustrative of the importance and value of empathically joining with another, to use a term from structural family therapy. But rather than a therapist joining with a family, discussions permitted classmates to join with each other, and to join with me as each one of us was transformed by and through the learning experience. I could not have created a better object lessen in empathy and connection. Over the 10-week class I grew closer to these students than I had any other class and felt I shared something very personal and special with each one of them. On the last day of class when we met in person to say good bye, I felt slightly uncomfortable and a little disoriented as the personalities I had come to know online were now attached to bodies, voices and hair color that I had yet to learn.

Recently in an article in the Chronicle Vitae, on asynchronous learning, Nicole Matos suggests, “There is no such thing…as asynchronous teaching. All good teaching has to be synchronous — timely, in step, and in tune.” This to me is the crux of online teaching and of the intimacy of online learning. Not only was I keenly attuned to and aware of the rhythm of student learning and consistently present during their journey, but students became aware of each other’s pace and were present for each other. Through this awareness and sustained presence we co-created a learning environment that was more than rich, it was personal, empathic and intimate.

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