As part of my recent online teaching where I employed the components of the relationship facilitation prototype I realised something: no feedback feels like negative feedback.

When you are sitting in an online class with cameras off and where responses to posed questions are limited it’s all too easy to slip into a sense that no one on the other end is enjoying the experience. But the point is that you don’t know either way – you just don’t have the information. Learners could be engaging in their own ways quite happily, but if that doesn’t impact the mechanisms you have available to ‘see’ their experience, then it feels like things are going badly.

Reading the room

I remember teaching in-person classes where I felt like students were not having a good time and that inevitably impacted how I felt about teaching that subject and the energy I was able to bring to the table. But then I would hear from students at the end of the subject how they had enjoyed it and found it rewarding and I would wonder why I had been so down about it.

I feel like a lot of this comes down to moderating our own expectations of what teaching might feel like. Just because engagement doesn’t look like what I hoped or thought it would be, doesn’t mean that people aren’t engaging at a level that feels rewarding to them. 

This is increasingly true in a new digital scenario where the mechanisms we get for realtime feedback don’t provide much visibility, and we (meaning the entire learning sector) are yet to figure out more appropriate ones for this entirely new space of interactions. It’s like there is a curtain between us and our learners – there are gaps in the curtain, but we haven’t quite yet figured out where they are or how best to make use of them.

With my recent teaching fortunately I had the profiles that students had built at the start of the session. These were an excellent reminder that students were all coming in with their own rich background experience as well as curiosity and interest in what we were going to learn in the subject. While it was hard to do while ‘talking to myself in an empty room’ I tried to keep this awareness in mind, and keep my tone and explanation as if I was talking to a room of students who were making eye contact and laughing at my jokes. And at the end of the session I got some of the most positive bits of feedback I’ve ever gotten through teaching because people were having a good time behind the curtain.

Getting used to the ‘curtain’

All this behooves us to remember that things are just going to be weird for a while. We are going through a paradigm shift in how we do some of the fundamental things that we do as teachers, and while we have the technology, it will be some time before we have developed consistent human expectations for how to deal with these new types of interactions. It will happen, but until then it’s going to be strange while we build it into our culture and set new expectations about what we need to do and how things are going to feel.

I should say that the metrics we have for engagement (like eye contact and responding to questions) do still have value, and we should be encouraging students to engage and reach out to interact with us and their peers. But at the same time I think we need to remember not to let our teaching practice be impacted by how we think the situation feels when we don’t have the information that we are used to having – without there being a feedback curtain in between.

Feature image by Kumar Vivek.

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