What you miss when teaching online

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In the enforced solitude of stay-at-home orders to fight the coronavirus, we sense the absence of things we’ve taken for granted — a colleague’s handshake, a smile from a stranger. Back then, we thought little of this, but now that it’s been taken away, there’s a hole in our hearts, a hole not filled by virtual encounters on an online platform like Zoom or Webex.

In the last few weeks, many of us have taught, or been taught, on such platforms. More have watched their children struggle with online classes, since schools have gone dark. I’ve been teaching my law classes through Webex for the past three weeks.

The classes are real-time. The students see you, sitting before your laptop, and you see them in tiny boxes across the screen, like on the old “Hollywood Squares.” With PowerPoint, the faces all disappear.

The audio isn’t as good as a phone call, but it works. But for the online classes, the teaching year would have been lost, so full marks to the techies who made it possible.

But it’s not the same as face-to-face teaching.

The first difference I noticed is the physicality of in-person classes. As a teacher, you move around; that helps you formulate and communicate your ideas. Check out a Jordan Peterson lecture on YouTube to see what I mean: He’s always in motion. He bobs his head like a boxer and weaves his hands like a pianist. If there’s a question, he’ll move closer to the student.

The physicality isn’t something separate from the message he conveys. It’s an integral part of the message. We are bodies, not just minds, even when what we do seems purely intellectual.

Contrast this with online teaching, where you stare into your laptop like a talking head, forced like a prisoner to remain in a fixed position. No motion, just the spoken word, not even facial expressions, unless you’re a skilled actor.

To see the difference, imagine a debate this fall between President Trump and Joe Biden. If the two meet in person, Trump’s physicality will dominate the room, as it did when he debated Hillary Clinton.

Which is why I assume the Democrats will insist on a virtual debate if the pandemic isn’t contained by then. That’ll take away much of Trump’s advantage. He’ll be cabined in.

The other thing I’ve learned in the last few weeks is how much I relied on visual cues from students in face-to-face teaching. If I was going high, wide and handsome on a cherished topic and was losing the students, I needed to see the signs of boredom in their faces.

If, God help me, I tried to be witty, I needed to be able to tell the difference between sincere and fake smiles.

When explaining some difficult point of law, I was lost if I couldn’t see the signs of puzzlement from bewildered students. I would become like people who suffer from an autistic spectrum disorder — not unsympathetic to others but unable to recognize what they might be feeling.

Beyond the obvious signs from people’s features, there are the micro-expressions, the momentary flickers of enjoyment, understanding or distaste that you don’t even seem to notice. But they’re there, and your brain processes them. At the end of a face-to-face class, the teacher might have a sense either that things worked or that he bombed. He won’t be able to tell you why, but he’ll know.

That’s the difference between online and face-to-face teaching, when it comes to getting ideas across. But it’s not just about ideas. It’s also about the feelings of sympathy and affection we derive from in-person meetings.

That’s why it’s so painful to deprive a person of human contact, why solitary confinement is the worst nonphysical punishment we can imagine, why it can lead to a sense of the world’s indifference and fill a prisoner with despair.

We’ve not been imprisoned, of course. And virtual encounters are better than no encounters. The online programs have kept our schools open, and for that we’re thankful. But it’s not the same.

F.H. Buckley is a professor at Scalia Law School and author of “American Secession: The Looming Threat of a National Breakup” (Encounter 2020).

Filed under 4/7/20