There’s no app for that.

The hybrid writing course I’ve been teaching ended last week. “Hybrid,” for those not in academia these days, means that half of the class time is face-to-face–in a physical classroom–and half of it is online, using discussion boards and other tools.

I have always resisted online teaching, because I enjoy the classroom experience so much. I am not opposed to online education in general; it brings a lot of opportunities to students who otherwise might not have them. It’s not a great fit for me, personally, though. It’s only after teaching a few hybrid courses that I’ve been able to figure out what’s missing from the online classroom and why I feel so ambivalent about teaching online.

In the classroom–especially in a small class–I can read the students’ faces and the quality of their voices (or their silences). For example, I recently asked a question in the writing course, and one of my students responded with a textbook-perfect answer–exactly the critical idea that would correct a major problem in a sample essay that we were reading. Indeed, he phrased it almost exactly the way I would have phrased it myself, so clearly he understood what I was trying to say about the essay in question.

But he didn’t understand it.

Or, more accurately, he didn’t trust that he understood it. His tone of voice conflicted with the confident phrasing; he sounded like he was waiting for me to stop him and tell him why his answer was wrong. (For the record, I rarely do that; this was his insecurity about his answer speaking, not a fear of contradiction that my classroom had fostered.)

I said, “I absolutely agree. This is the exact problem with the argument. Why do you sound so uncertain about your answer?”

He said, “I don’t know–I guess I was thinking maybe I didn’t get it or I’d just missed something.”

One of the other students said, “I thought the same thing–I didn’t understand why the author wrote that, but I thought it was something I missed.”

I said, “But both of you are right. You’re reading carefully; you’ve both demonstrated that already in this conversation by pulling out specific details to support your overall evaluation of this piece. Be confident in your analysis; if you’ve missed something, after a careful reading, that means that it’s not clear enough.”

The last part of that statement clearly resonated with both of these students: even if you do misunderstand something occasionally, if you’re doing a good job of reading, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It usually means the author of the piece has failed. And being wrong, as I often tell them, is okay. It’s better to be wrong in a thoughtful way–because there’s a piece of information missing, or because you’ve misinterpreted a particular statement–than not to have any significant opinion at all.

This reflects the power of the face-to-face classroom for two reasons.

1) In an online discussion, his answer would look like a confident, assertive answer. I would have no reason to linger over this point at all; I would probably assume–for lack of any indication to the contrary–that this student not only understood the question and the point of the exercise, but also that he was comfortable with the rhetorical concepts that underlie this reading.

OR

2) He wouldn’t have written this answer, because when a student is forced to put something down on the page–or the screen–the bar seems to be higher for the quality of the answer. A student whose in-person answer might be a bit uncertain will often write down an answer that is much safer, but less useful. Instead of giving an analysis, the answer might be a summary, for example.

In a hybrid course, if I get to know the students, I can interpret their written answers more accurately (after the first couple of weeks), because I know what their speaking mannerisms are like and how they usually respond in a conversation. But in an entirely-online course, I don’t know how this is supposed to happen. I realize that some online classrooms use video chat (Skype, whatever), but so far, most of the students report that the technology is so unreliable that they spend a lot of their learning time trying to iron out tech problems.

So, while an online discussion or a written response to a reading can tell me what a student thinks, a physical discussion can tell me how the student thinks.

Face-to-face classes also let me gauge things like whether the group has understood something I’ve just said. I use humor a lot in the classroom; most of that humor falls flat on the screen. It’s also much easier, in person, for me to show–through warmth of voice, through body language that shows that I’m listening to their responses–that I appreciate their contributions to discussion. 

I think most teachers would agree with me that there is a difference, when you’re standing in front of thirty students and asking a question, in the silence that falls over a class when they are contemplating the question (examining it from different angles, preparing evidence for the answers they’re about to present) and the silence that falls over a classroom full of students who do not get it or do not care.

The whole demeanor of the room is different. The posture of the students in their chairs is different. Their willingness to make eye contact is different.

And reading those kinds of cues requires being in the same room. No matter what happens, I can’t imagine technology replacing that experience. There’s no way to duplicate it, because students don’t know they’re telegraphing those things. And they don’t know how much of their learning they’re taking from reading my own tone of voice, posture, or eye contact. It’s more than they think.

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