The disembodied teacher

In the late 90s I became an online learner in a postgraduate program delivered entirely via WebCT. Those were the days of AltaVista, Netscape, Eudora, Google beta and dial-up! The content of the program was the internet – expert search online strategies, website design and use of the internet for professional communication. Interaction was via asynchronous discussion forums. I loved this new mode of study! Everyday I would dial in (sometimes several times a day!), eager to participate in the forums. I was completely hooked on online learning, and even chose to research online learning as one of my first assignments.

After graduation I was invited back to teach one of the courses in the program. To my surprise, I found that my delight in learning online didn’t extend to teaching online. Something essential and fundamental was missing. I was an experienced high school teacher and had also tutored in face-to-face university courses. I loved teaching and I couldn’t understand why teaching online felt so different. So unsatisfying.

I’m now an experienced online teacher. At my current University I’ve been teaching postgraduate masters courses fully online for seven years. I even supervise international doctoral students fully online, which has meant I have never met some of my doctoral students face-to-face. I seemed to have become an ‘expert’ in online teaching. Occasionally my University allows me back in a face-to-face classroom, but I guess I’m too valuable as an online teacher to be given too much face-to-face teaching. And here’s the rub: I still find teaching online unsatisfying.

So, what’s different about teaching online?

Teaching as a full body experience

My background is in the performing arts. My face-to-face teaching was underpinned by my experience and skill as a performer. I love to see, connect with, and respond to an audience. As a high school music teacher I was energetic and physically active. I conducted the band and choir. I spent the day playing a range of instruments. I sang instructions to my students in fake opera. I playfully rapped the roll when marking attendance. At a more pragmatic level, I used the proximity of my body and my movement around the classroom as a classroom management technique. Even when my online study lead to a new career – teacher librarian and subsequently academic librarian – I still maintained my flamboyant style – and became known as the ‘Loud Librarian’. For me, teaching was a full body performance experience.

By contrast, my physical presence in online teaching is subdued and sedentary. In many ways I feel like a radio broadcaster. When recording mini-lectures I’m careful to use my soothing ‘newsreader’ voice. In an attempt to create a persona I usually show my face as a talking head on a small part of the screen while the main screen features my slides. In my audio-only web conference tutorials I allow myself to use a more animated ‘talk-back radio’ voice.  I try and mitigate my generally more subdued oral presence through frequent emoticons in emails, discussion posts and text chats.

When I teach online I feel disconnected from my students’ bodies. I have limited information upon which to base my teaching decisions. I find it difficult to gauge the emotional tone of the class. Even though I can hear student’s voices via audio I can’t scan their faces to see if they understand, if they are ready (or reluctant) to speak, if they agree or disagree, if they are tired, if they are excited.

Even though my use of my body is minimal, I find teaching online more exhausting and less creative. I’ve noticed that when I teach face-to-face I’m more agile, and responsive. I’m also more energetic, but this might be due to my face-to-face classes generally being conducted during normal working hours whereas most my online classes are held in the evenings after a full day at work. I find that in a face-to-face class I’m more able to draw energy from my students, whereas an online class can be draining in its intensity, possibly due to the text chat backchannel being conducted simultaneously with audio interaction.

And yet.

I know that the disembodiedness of online learning is a positive for many of my students. Occasionally my students reveal that while participating in web conference sessions they are breast-feeding, cooking, travelling on public transport, or in their pjs in bed! I know that if it weren’t for the availability of online courses, my students (mainly working women with young families) simply wouldn’t have the opportunity to study.

Some students tell me they love the anonymity that online learning affords, and this is also borne out by other’s experiences (Sullivan, 2002). In our web conferences some are fearful of speaking in front of others and refuse to use the mic, but happily use the text chat. Others are inhibited because the sounds of their household leak through (kids crying, TV blaring, dogs barking). In my longing for embodiment and connection, I dream of the day when we have the internet bandwidth and speed to support video conferencing, virtual reality and holograms. But I know that in making a stronger visual and audio connection something could be lost for those students who choose anonymity.

Reclaiming my body

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with reclaiming my body (as much as is possible) in teaching online classes. I now use a standing desk for web conference tutorials and recording lectures, which gives me a feeling of more energy and physicality. For the last couple of years I have been recording oral feedback for students on their web-based assignments, rather than traditional written comments. Students have found this deeply personal.  Some students have told me that they have shed happy tears listening to my feedback while others have found it very confronting:

This semester for the first time I received an audio recording from my lecturer explaining my assessment. This recording added a personal element I was unprepared for. Although I found it extremely useful, I could hear the emotion in her voice, and her frustration and disappointment with my assignment. Completing a course by correspondence provides me with a certain level of anonymity. After hearing my lectures voice I feel a sense of responsibility to work harder and hopefully achieve a better result next time. (student blog 2012)

This student’s experience made me realise how powerful my physical voice is compared to my written voice. I now am careful to be aware of, and moderate my own negative emotions when providing feedback.

In dipping into the literature looking for other perspectives on this issue I have noticed that the discussion into the absence of the body in online learning – the ‘no(body)’ (Lander, 2005; McWilliam & Palmer, 1996) – has mainly been conducted in the 90s and early 2000s, before the ubiquity of synchronous audio and video web conferencing. The literature of the time discusses and critiques the notion of online learning being impoverished and diminished, with a loss of richness and connection (Brabazon, 2002; Land, 2004). It acknowledges that online teaching and learning can provide freedom from disabilities and discrimination (Buckley, 1997). Some literature draws on embodiment theory (McWilliam, 1996) to examine this departure from a ‘tradition where some body teaches some body’ (McWilliam & Palmer, 1996, p. 166). More recent work examines digital technologies as an extension of the body rather than displacing the body (Vlieghe, 2012).

As an enthusiastic advocate of connected learning, I don’t want to put the genie back in the bottle. It’s just that for all the efficiency and convenience that is served by online learning I would like to acknowledge a personal loss. As a musician and dancer, I am accustomed to using my body as a tool for communication and expression. As a teacher, my body is ‘a lived medium [that] becomes part of the curriculum’ (Shapiro, 1999, p. 138). As compensation for my feeling of being a ‘(no)body’ I have thrown myself into creating vibrant connected learning communities. But despite this I still feel that my expression is limited. I have less information and knowledge to draw on. I feel one-dimensional and less artistic (Lupton, 2013). I still yearn to be a ‘some body’.


Brabazon, T. (2002). Digital hemlock. Internet education and the poisoning of teaching. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Buckley, J. (1997). The invisible audience and the disembodied voice: Online teaching and the loss of body image. Computers and Compostion, 14, 179-187.

Land, R. (2004). Issues of embodiment and risk in online learning. Paper presented at the Beyond the comfort zone. ASCILITE, 5-8th December, Perth, Western Australia.

Lander, D. (2005). The consuming (no)body of online learners: Re-membering e-communities of practice. Studies in Continuing Education, 27, 2.

Lupton, M. (2013). Reclaiming the art of teaching. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(2), 156-166.

McWilliam, E. (1996). Pedagogues, technologies, bodies. In E. McWilliam & P. Taylor (Eds.), Pedagogy, technology, and the body (pp. 1-22). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

McWilliam, E., & Palmer, P. (1996). Pedagogues, tech(no)bods: Re-inventing postgraduate pedagogy. In E. McWilliam & P. Taylor (Eds.), Pedagogy, technology, and the body (pp. 163-170). New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Shapiro, S. (1999). Pedagogy and the politics of the body: A critical praxis. New York: Garland Publishing.

Sullivan, P. (2002). “It’s easier to be yourself when you are invisible”: Female colleage students discuss their online classroom experiences. Innovative Higher Education, 27(2), 129-144.

Vlieghe, J. (2012). Education and the body in the age of digital technologies. A “Stieglerian’ perspective. In B. Bergstedt, A. Herbert & A. Kraus (Eds.), Initating Learning (pp. 73-95). New York: Muenster.

Stradbroke Island, Queensland

Stradbroke Island, Queensland

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