The (online) teacher’s body

At #ET4Online in July, I met a kindred spirit named Jen Ross, lecturer and academic program director for the MSc in E-Learning program at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to sharing the fact that we both have fiery red hair and speak abnormally fast when we’re giddy, we share a passion for online learning and making sense of the learning experiences made possible with online technologies. Because of our shared affinity, we have started meeting via Google+ Hangouts every other week to chat, ask questions, share ideas, and catch up on what’s going on in online learning.

Yesterday, in our first of such meetings, Jen made a comment that really stuck with me and I want to explore it a little more. She said that she was wrestling with the question, “In what ways is course design a stand-in for the teacher’s body?” The question stuck with me both because of my interest in instructional design and because of a book I read in graduate school called “The Teacher’s Body.” In the book, editors Diane P. Freedman and Martha Stoddard Holmes collect a series of writings about the body—the physical body of the teacher—in a class and the impact of that body on students, learning experiences, and the instructor-student relationship. There are poignant writings from teachers in wheelchairs, from teachers who fought cancer while teaching, from teachers who were pregnant while teaching, and more.

So, when Jen asked the question about instructional design and the teacher’s body, I immediately thought back to the essays I read in “The Teacher’s Body.” Most of us probably don’t think much about our bodies when we are teaching. We may think about our clothing, sometimes about the state of our hair (particularly in those dreadful early-morning classes), but very little about our actual physical presence in the classroom. The editors of the book state that teachers often think of the body only in terms of its “service of the mind,” and I wonder if we can say the same about the way we design online courses. Do we think of instructional design as merely in service of the content, of what’s spilling out of our brains and leaking into students’ browsers?

What if we thought more critically, and perhaps more empathetically, about the teacher’s body? What if we recognized the issues of authority, identity, and humanity that our physical bodies create in the classroom? How might thinking more about your body impact your teaching?

And what if we began thinking of the design of an online learning environment as the embodiment of a teacher? I think this extends our notions of social and cognitive presence in face-to-face and online learning.

Can we talk about physical bodies and designed online environments in the same breath? Certainly the design of online environments, like our physical bodies in the classroom, can convey notions of power, authority, identity, and humanity. Might this be an argument for moving away from rigid, closed, and authority-driven platforms for online learning in favor of learning environments that respect and cultivate the “bodies” (learning environments each individual brings to the class) of our students? And what are the limitations of thinking of online instructional design in terms of the physical body? Will online environments ever be able to convey the humanity of seeing a teacher’s body ail with sickness or glow in the late afternoon sunlight?

We’re still wrestling with these questions and we’d love to hear your thoughts. Share them in the comments section below and, while you’re at it, share your thoughts on what topics Jen and I should discuss in our next chat (maybe publicly?).


Shadows image from flickrCC user Atilla1000, used with permissions granted by the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License

6 thoughts on “The (online) teacher’s body

  1. What a beautiful picture to go with your thoughts!!! It perfectly portrays what it can mean to be an online teacher or learner. It is so easy to become a shadow on the grid sometimes!

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  3. love this post, Amy. I think what I find most thought-provoking about the metaphor is the attention that it draws (for me) to how personal the politics of our digital platforms are. I don’t know if I *want* a VLE for a body, and “what is my MOOC environment saying about me?” isn’t a question that feels easy or comfortable to answer.

    I also feel a certain, almost physical affinity with some of my learning environments, and a discomfort in others, that evokes prosthetic limbs or something equally prone to extending, constraining and *changing* reach and movement.

    See you next Monday! and by the way, on Saturday I went from fiery red to raspberry pink…

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  6. This is so interesting to think about as a teacher and an online teacher. You articulate much clearer some issues I have struggled with in my own online classes. I try to make myself as present as I can be without being physically present and so I do agree that our designed online environments are very much a reflection of our (mental/emotional or cognitive perhaps) selves.

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