Phoning It In: My Year of Teaching Via Skype (Chronicle Vitae)

Nathan Faries

Lecturer in Chinese Studies at Bates College

September 18, 2014

My year-long experiment with synchronous teaching over a Skype connection is complete. The good news: It worked. Better and more seamlessly than I could ever have imagined. But whether that means telepedagogy has a place in traditional academe is not so easily answered.

I began the experiment last fall, after my university allowed me to temporarily relocate while my wife held a one-year postdoctoral appointment at Yale University. Throughout 2013-14, my students congregated in college classrooms in Iowa to study literature with me as I sat at my desk in Connecticut. I joined them as a talking head projected on a screen, but a talking head that could listen as well, take attendance, chat before class, call on students who looked sleepy. I enlisted volunteers in each class to set up the camera and to navigate the documents and websites that would sometimes share the screen with me.

It worked beautifully. The technology was inexpensive and reliable. Student comments were positive. Anecdotally, I discovered no difference in attendance habits or student interest in the material compared with previous years when I was physically in the classroom. I was able to hold on to my job and serve my department while keeping a two-academic family together. It was a success.

And I’ll never do it again.

When I started writing this column to chronicle the experience, my ambitions foresaw weekly blog updates, a 22-episode season of sit-com-style reports on our hilarious academic misadventures: David Lodge meets 30 Rock. My hubris balloon quickly leaked to the size of a 10-part miniseries in monthly installments; I imagined the column would become more like an addictive Danish import TV thriller in which every character deals with grave metaphysical doubts as they face an evil that is both unthinkable and banal . . . and the snow keeps falling. But even the monthly commitment was more than I could handle. Finally, here I am back on campus, concluding a mere shriveled trilogy of columns.

Why didn’t I find more to say about this rare teaching experience via Skype? The semester grew full of business, of course. Readers, especially those of you at teaching institutions, know the difference between September and November.

But also any sense of urgency about describing my Skype experience faded quickly. I felt, soon after the semester began, that I didn’t have much to say about teaching over Skype, nor many people to say it to. Skype teaching is apparently “not a thing,” so rather than striking the pose of a pioneer, I soon felt more like a creepy loner out in the woods.

But it was primarily the success of the experiment that killed my inspiration. A loner in the woods might still be a Thoreau with a “Simplify!” sermon to preach to a heedless world, but I was a loner in a comfortable cabin with indoor plumbing. Teaching over Skype was not “roughing it.” This was not a story of survival or even a strenuous lifestyle change. For the first month or two I wrote rambling pages about Walter Benjamin and “aura” and the fragmentation of the body, how my eyes and voice were detached from my face. Then my students asked what “ow’st” means in Sonnet 18; they wondered if anything really depends upon a red wheelbarrow; and they objected that Hemingway could have left in a few more “he saids,” just for the sake of clarity. And so we forgot about the camera and just had to get on with the conversation. The technology disappeared as much as it was able to–it was designed to fade away, after all, to “facilitate.” And so writing about teaching through Skype suddenly felt as fresh as writing about the wonders and dangers of email.

The technology required to teach face-to-face from 1,000 miles away is already here. Detractors bear the burden of proof. It works well and needs no champion. But does anyone care to use it?

The students largely agreed with me that at some point the strangeness wore off and a teacher on a screen became their new normal. I see no pedagogical reason that this sort of classroom could not become as common as cross-country phone interviews on NPR. We accept these long-distance conversations on our radios and TVs without a thought; we forget about the spaces between pundits and hosts. Actors audition for parts over Skype; virtual reality psychotherapy is actual reality; and my dean confirmed that student reports regarding me and my courses were positive and that “the issues [students] did raise are really no different than for face to face.”

And yet the experiment will not continue because everyone, including me, still prefers the personal presence of an educator’s entire body pacing grooves into the carpet in front of the class as we all struggle to understand new and difficult ideas.

My dean and chair report that, no matter how content students might be with class via Skype, when asked their preference, students invariably favored having a professor who is physically in the room. And instead of our university garnering praise for retaining a valued faculty member and pioneering technology in the classroom, some peer institutions expressed their conviction that this sort of experiment would have no place at their colleges.

In conversations with my dean, he said his peers cited “the importance of the face-to-face experience in liberal-arts education,” undoubtedly with a meaningful glance at those parents whose children were trying to choose between their campus and ours.

And even though I am tempted to object–my students and I engaged in “face-to-face” education in every class session; I don’t know what else to call what we were doing–who am I to argue about the mysterious difference that “being there” makes? I, too, looked forward to being bodily present with my students once again this fall. I am grateful for the telephone, but I’d rather be home for Christmas.

As long as there are plenty of Ph.D.’s to teach the courses corporeally and sit (with actual buttocks) on the requisite committees, and as long as students and their parents are asking blunt questions about value and cost, what is the upside to shaking up the traditional students’ traditional classrooms? Almost nothing.

For the next 100 years, at least, it seems likely that we as a society will persist in the belief that the best education occurs in immediate physical proximity to the warm body of a Ph.D. That assumption should be scrutinized on a regular basis, but I am not cynical about it: I hope it is the truth.

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