Thursday, November 13, 2014

Online Teaching and "Body Language"

Image description: A quotation by Jenifer Ringer,
"Terry taught ballet as if it were very important and precious."

Vignette 1:

"Terry taught ballet as if it were very important and precious." - Jenifer Ringer, Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet. 

Pointe Technique in Ballet
Image Description: Feet clad in ballet
shoes standing on pointe position
A line in a book given to me during the early days of losing my parents; supposedly the heroine's victory over her struggles would inspire me. A short sentence fraught with meaning and implications. I especially love the second half of the sentence. The words swirled with the other info bytes in my mind from last week's learning.

[Context: Jenifer Ringer was a professional ballerina. In her memoir, she wrote that she found ballet boring until she met Terry Shields who instilled in her the important virtue of discipline combined with high standards in dancing (2014, p. 12). ]

Vignette 2:

Online Teaching 101. A graduate seminar discussion. On the projector screen were these words, "effective face-to-face teaching." I asked students to explore this phrase and make their thoughts and observations visible through words, questions and metaphors.

Working in pairs, one graduate student raised a question about the potential influence of a teacher's body language on student learning outcomes.

"Are you impressed?" (by their question).


The mashup:

A weekend and four days later.

Ringer's quote and the students' question led me to think about the planning of my potential summer 2015 online course more delicately. In an online course, many students may not literally "see" an online teacher-facilitator and/or a fellow student's body language.

To be honest, what does body language look like online? Or better, how is it represented online?

First, let's be clear about what "body language" means:
Body Language "refers to various forms of nonverbal communication, wherein a person may reveal clues as to some unspoken intention or feeling through their physical behavior. These behaviors include, but are not limited to: facial expressions, body posture, gestures, eye movement, touch and the use of space." (Wikipedia
  1. Does body language matter online? 
  2. If so, how does the teacher/student display body language? 
  3. What is/are the difference(s)?...
I have many questions. On top of my abundance of questions on participatory networked learning: contract grading (Cathy Davidson), avoiding resistance to contract grading, crowdsourcing grading, peer evaluation, constantly negotiated syllabus... My head is hurting.

Since online learning is mediated by communication technology - text, image (still and moving),  sound, synchronous and asynchronous communication, conveying to my online students how important and precious the subject matter is --to me-- requires meticulous design.

To answer Q2 first, the usual suspects in the technology realm for representing "voice" and "presence" are:

  • Real-time webconferencing
  • Biographies with visuals
  • Podcasts 
  • Conversational tone of text communications 

I've read blogposts by some online participants condemning real-time conferencing, in particular when a panel of facilitators are not prepared. Awkward silence pervades when panelists don't know when it is their turn to speak and students are left wondering how to respond to silence. We live in a world where quick wit is prized and silence/time to think is punished. To answer Q1, yes, it matters, especially if you are going to create videoclips and simulations of real-time teaching where your nonverbal communication cues are going to be captured.

[Note, Nov. 15, 2014: It's not the technology alone that is going to do the job; it is how you use the technology to help you express your intents and motives.]

Yet, Ringer's quote demanded more. I'd not just have to choose an appropriate technology but also, be mindful of all the elements of a course that would gel together to convey my teaching attitude: from frequency of contact with my students, to type of learning activities (Ringer got the chance to participate in real stage productions where her learning mattered), to even how my course site looks. Students care about the values teachers are imparting, like Ringer. Every detail of the course would convey if I'm fearlessly passionate about the topic. It's simultaneously exhausting and rewarding to design and teach a course.

As to Q3, is there a difference between how a teacher and a student conveys her intentions in real-time and virtual spaces? This is a difficult one.

Ideally, we are all human beings and regardless of our status, there should be no difference; we ought to treat each other with respect and dignity. But teachers are held to a higher standard as the role model and facilitator. Granted, Freire wrote that we are all teachers, at some point, and we learn from each other. This answers Q3 theoretically. But what happens often in practice?  Sometimes, we forget to prepare in advance for the learner who is legally blind or deaf or has a physical disability which holds back his/her participation in the course. We forget that that blinking multiple-images gif might not be read by the screen reader too well. And that automatic captioning by Google is hardly any captioning at all unless we are all wonderful voice talents and videographers. We don't know that sometimes a blind student might need more than one type of screen reader to access information on the web. Because we have yet to encounter a person with such challenges. Yes, teachers are held to a higher standard. We have to be vigilant of different learners with different needs and seek to make them feel welcome.

A somewhat cliched quote I'll include to end this post, but nonetheless one I often think about in teaching and relating to people:

Image Description: A quotation by Theodore Roosevelt,
"No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care."
My ex-students had indicated this to me over and over again in my life. Thanks, folks, for what you taught me. 

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