The first thing people ask when I tell them I teach online is, “Can the students see you? Can you see them?”. In fact, most of the time, the answer is no. We could see each other using the technology we have, but most of the time, it’s not necessary.
I do meet “live” with my students in an interactive web platform (Blackboard), and we do have webcam capability. However, in our initial new-teacher training, we were told that using the webcam could actually be more distracting than helpful, and this has been my own experience in the “student” role in our staff meetings and professional development, which are all conducted using the same platform that I use to teach my classes.
In our live sessions, my students hear my voice, interact with me and other students on a shared “whiteboard” space, chat live with other students, and can come over the microphone themselves (although most are shy about doing this). Without the distraction of watching a face and focusing on what this other person in front of them is doing, the student’s focus is sharpened and directed at the material being presented rather than on a social context. They’re not being distracted by my bad hair day or the spinach stuck in my teeth,not to mention by the social labyrinth of the classroom which is so all-important to a teenager. Removing these distractions lets the student focus on what is truly essential, namely, the content of the lesson.
Now, an important question remains: what do we lose by removing this visual (and physical) interaction? Is the presence of a live person, and the sight of a human face, actually necessary to create engagement, enthusiasm, or a sense of connection? I know on a practical level, there are sometimes frustrating moments when I wish I could just see what my students are doing. For example, I spent at least 15 minutes in a live session with a student the other day, trying to help him find the “tab” button on his laptop. If I had been there with him, I would have found it in seconds; he eventually sent me a picture of his keyboard, but it was a perfect example of how physical presence can be necessary. Again, though, technology provided a work-around.
Another issue that is often raised with this setting is “How do you know if students are paying attention if you can’t see them?”. As any teacher knows, you can tell if your students are paying attention through questioning, for which visual contact isn’t actually necessary at all. And of course, even standing directly in front of a student who is disengaged from learning is not necessarily going to cause that student to become an active participant. So basically, teaching online provides many of the same challenges as the traditional classroom, with the main difference that the physical presence of the teacher is replaced by an online presence, which forces the teacher to find new solutions to the same age-old dilemmas.