Missing the Fear of Failure in Online Education


So, I’ve been teaching an online art appreciation course for several weeks now and have noticed some stark differences between this and teaching a class in person. I should point out that this is the first time I've taught this class online and have had to learn quite a bit about the logistics of online course delivery, but that’s beside the point. The main thing I've noticed, regardless of any and all logistic challenges is the absences of the lecture.

Lecturing is the classic teaching method of college-level courses. It usually involves the professor standing up in front of a classroom filled with anywhere from 20-200 students speaking to/at the crowd about a topic that finds itself nested within the overall umbrella of the course material. This system as described features a plethora of flaws that would be tedious to examine comprehensively right now. Many of them can be overcome by blending lectures with other student-centered activities during the class meeting time, but the lecture itself can remain without the overall experience suffering for it. The reason to keep this oldest of teaching tools is simple: emotional connection.

We are social creatures. Social media and digital interactions have served to enhance the ways we connect with each other in truly fascinating ways, but they are no substitute for in person meetings. I'm not saying social media is a bad thing. I love it and use it to conveniently keep relationships alive that would otherwise suffer under my busy schedule and occasionally forgetful nature. But I'll always opt for meeting up at a bar/library/coffee shop/park/etc. over using an online communication service. The difference is in the ability to read facial expressions in real time; to notice and feel the spatial changes that accompany body language; to feel the tension that comes with knowing the person in front of you can react to what you say in a real and intimate way by encroaching upon your personal space.

Digital communication protects us from these things and dulls our social senses with a layer of security and safety. Without what is essentially the danger of an in person conversation and the fear of not being able to just log off if things start to go wrong, people lose the gut desire to connect in a real way. We loose the need to create an empathic link to the other person in order to temper their possible negative reactions and amplify their possible positive ones. In teaching, i find I'm less naturally inclined to work on delivering the absolute best content I can when teaching an online course. I don't feel the pressure of having only one shot at the lecture and the fear of having to make eye contact with disappointed and confused students if I fail to deliver the content in an effective way. Instead, I have to catch myself and remind myself to refocus and edit my typed words to increase their effectiveness. This extra step and lack of fear seems to be dimming my ability to be a dynamic instructor, though I do my best to mitigate it.

Overall, the complex layers of safety created by online education seem to me to be a negative. Students and instructors need that bit of fear to do their best, but it must be the specific fear that comes along with meeting someone for the first time. The fear that’s laced into that first conversation when you want to make a good first impression and makes you try to show your personality at its absolute best. It may not be the most honest representation of yourself, but it’s often the best. I know that when I'm charged with making sure that a student who paid good money leaves my class with new knowledge, expertise, and understanding, I want that best version of myself doing the teaching. People always seem like that guy, and he’s pretty damn good at his job.