Teaching online, longing for connection

By Brandi Fox, Margaret Bearman, Robin Bellingham, Andrea North-Samardzic, Simona Scarparo, Darci Taylor, Matthew Krehl Edward Thomas and Michael Volkov (refer to each author’s position and affiliation in the footnotes)

What does it mean to teach in a post digital age when “…the disruption brought upon by information technology has already occurred” (Cramer, 2015, p. 20)? In the COVID-19 pandemic, academia has had to make an abrupt shift to wholly online as many universities adapt to the necessities of distance learning. It is within this significant cultural milieu in academia that we presented a seminar for CRADLE which described our study from late 2019 when we were afforded time to engage in reflexive practice about teaching online.

We are an interdisciplinary group of teaching academics at Deakin University with business, law, psychology, education, sociology and computer science backgrounds. Recently we presented our experience as university academics involved in a participatory research group (PRG) exploring our practice and identity as online educators through a collaborative autoethnography (CAE). That is to say, we studied ourselves so that we could collectively explore the complex and nuanced questions of becoming an educator online. We used this qualitative tradition to make meaning of our individual and combined experiences arising from our experience of working on online units in a safe and collegiate space. We followed the guidance of Chang et al., (2012, p.24) who describes how in CAE, “each participant contributes to the collective work in [their] distinct and independent voice. At the same time, the combination of multiple voices to interrogate social phenomenon creates a unique synergy and harmony that auto-ethnographers cannot attain in isolation”. Our process of collective interpretation both informs and interrogates our practice as online educators. Our study enabled a cross-disciplinary collaboration that went beyond professional learning and development, into the nuanced experiences of educating online that are often overlooked and undervalued in higher education research.

We were surprised by one of our key findings: despite our levels of comfort and expertise with teaching online, each of us found ourselves longing for connection – something we felt we had lost with our students, our colleagues and our own professional identities. We felt this as a rupture and a disconfigurement of our professional and personal understanding of who we are and who we are becoming as educators in an online space. On the first meeting of our PRG Andrea stated, “I’m a theatre actor. I feed off the audience, and they’ve turned me into a YouTuber, and I have nothing, and I’m getting no validation”. It was a disconnection that we all felt, however, our experiences of the loss diverged as some of us sought and found connection with our students while for others this connection was not forthcoming. We grappled with the illusion of permanency as we typed and posted text responses to our students and asked how much of difference there was really between being recorded in a lecture theatre versus sitting in your office recording yourself while speaking to a screen –the theatre actor versus the YouTuber. Was our presence being felt? Did the student know who we were? Did they care? We discussed how much time we spent online and how the boundaries were permeated on a regular basis between online and off, the time we spent responding to students became any time – day or night. We reflected on how our conversations were almost always focused on us, the educator, and how we yearned to know more about them, the students. We offered these provocations and more to those who attended our webinar – the faceless audience whose presence we only felt through text.

These texts also provided us with provocations. They provided an opportunity to consider how this work might inform practice on the ground. And what we raised is that there can be deep discomforts and feelings of disconnection even for experienced online teachers. What we realised, for ourselves, was the CAE provided a means to support ourselves and our colleagues.

Our collaborative participatory approach to research empowered each of us in our professional capacities as well as our identities as higher education academics. We all agreed with Margaret’s statement that “the process [of CAE] has allowed me to feel the power of the university, the academy and the collective – even through telling stories of disempowerment. It has afforded a place (a rare place) to be emotional, to feel, to connect.”

The presenters are currently authoring multiple papers from this study, one of which is currently under review.

References

Chang, H., Ngunjiri, F., & Hernandez, K. (2016). Collaborative autoethnography. Routledge.

Cramer, F. (2015). What is ‘Post-digital’?. In D.M. Berry & M. Dieter (Eds.), Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation and Design. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Footnote

Brandi Fox is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning, CRADLE and Research for Educational Futures REDI, Deakin University.

Margaret Bearman is a Research Professor at the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE), Deakin University.

Robin Bellingham is a Lecturer in Pedagogy and Curriculum, School of Education, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University.

Andrea North-Samardzic is the Director of the Master of Business Administration program and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Management at Deakin Business School, Deakin University.

Simona Scarparo is a Senior Lecturer in Accounting at Deakin Business School, Department of Accounting, Deakin University.

Darci Taylor is a Senior Lecturer in Learning Design, Office of the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Education), Deakin University.

Matthew Krehl Edward Thomas is a Senior Lecturer in Pedagogy and Curriculum, School of Education, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University.

Michael Volkov, is an Associate Professor (Marketing) in the Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University.