Last week I taught the second half of a writing-fiction course. Nothing new in that -- I teach often. This one, however, was different. Sponsored by the Odyssey Workshop run by Jeanne Cavelos, it was on-line, conducted with Go-To-Meeting conferencing software, and I could not see any of my fourteen students. Two of them were in Australia, two in Japan, one in Canada, the rest scattered around the United States.
It's very odd lecturing to people when you cannot see their faces. I am used to nods, smiles, expressions of interest or concern or puzzlement, raised hands to ask questions. Questions were possible; the student typed a Q in the "chat box," the monitor "un-muted" him or her, and then everyone could hear the question and my response (they could also hear my dog bark). Other classroom activities were likewise possible: I "wrote on the board" by typing on my screen, which typing then appeared on theirs. Prepared hand-outs could be put on screen, scrolled through, and discussed. Email took care of homework assignments. In fact, everything was there from a usual classroom -- except faces.
Faces, it turns out, are critical. Even for me, who has trouble recognizing them (see previous post on prosopagnosia). I'm not saying I would not teach on-line again, but I am saying it was an eerie experience. Sort of like teaching ghosts.