Thursday, 26 May 2011

Assumptions in a Virtual World

In one of my previous blogs, I talked about my daily commute to London. One morning recently, my train pulled in to City Thameslink station and the usual crowd got up and left the train. In the ensuing - and brief - silence which followed, a woman standing at the door of the carriage called out "Is this City Thameslink?" Without giving it any thought, nor looking over my shoulder to see, I made a very presumptive judgement about her. "The station name's written on the wall! It's just been announced by the driver! Stupid woman." I didn't say that obviously, but I most definitely thought it!

But then I had another thought, "Hang on, who's being stupid here? What assumptions have I just made without checking? Maybe she's blind; or deaf; or both! Maybe she has learning difficulties, or is Dyslexic! Did I hear a foreign accent? Is English not her first language?" You see where I'm going with this. Because I couldn't see her or be bothered to find out anything about her, I made a horrible, knee-jerk, inappropriate judgement about her because of that one heard question. There, I'm glad I got that off my chest - confession is good for the soul!

Then I got to thinking how similar that situation is to that in which I have found myself when running virtual classroom sessions or webinars. My guess is that the majority of us don't use webcam or video in these sessions (bandwidth, etc), so we rely on our participants' voices, their web chat, their interaction with mark-up tools, responses to questions or polls, for us to get any sense of who they really are and the circumstances in which they are participating in our session.

But what don't we know or can tell from this? Are they private? Are they in a shared office? Can they interact freely? Are they shy? Do they have difficulty in seeing the screen? Do they need glasses? Are they 'newbies' to this environment? Do they not like the sound of their own voice? Is English not their first language? Is this session engaging enough? Am I encouraging participation with my questions, my polls, my arguments?

In the classroom, we identify some of these issues because we can see the learner and actively flex to engage them as we go along. Do we pay enough attention to the quiet ones in our online sessions, without those clues?

We talk a lot about non-verbal communication and how we rely on it to contextualise our face-to-face or classroom sessions. As my team and I look to retool, revitalise and revive our Virtual Classroom sessions and uptake, maybe we need to pay even more - and urgent - attention to our virtual interpretation and communication skills.

Have you got any similar experiences and/or hints and tips to share?


  1. Hi Niall. This is a great post, picking up on a very real and important problem! In the (100% online) COLF course that I have just done via the IITT, we talked a lot about 'online body language' but you're right, the sense you get of your classmates is based on their voice, chat, responses and annotations - and perhaps a photograph. Having said that, I really felt like I knew my four classmates and facilitator by a few sessions in, and I think some of that was to do with the types of conversations we had. As we were a small group, there was enough time for us to share more of ourselves than just the usual 'I'm in our London office and it's sunny outside' introductions. Over the three weeks, I learnt about who everyone idolised as a teenager, which radio shows we listen to, what we wanted to be when we grew up and what kind of dogs everyone had! Having this kind of chit-chat doesn't overcome all the difficulties of building virtual relationships, but perhaps is a good starting point.

  2. Excellent story Niall - and one to tell you online classes. As Stephanie said, this 'online body language' issue is perhaps the most important one to learn. I would try to use your webcam (you may be pleasantly surprised re bandwidth following recent upgrades to Webex and Adobe Connect) certainly at the start and end of your sessions - it really does make a massiv difference as Stephanie outlined.

    One request (cheeky I know): could you put a link to my blog on your blog list?


    PS>The sign in part of sending a post is a nightmare - is it necessary? May put people off posting.

  3. Steph, thanks for your insightful comments. I'm taking away using a photograph, and the value of running more than one session with the same group, to build more of a 'social' element into our VC sessions.

    Colin, thanks also. My learning from you is to move on from what I've hitherto understood to be NOT possible, and to try the newer tools and their capabilities. Sorry about the signing in to comment issue; I've changed my settings now so anyone can comment now, but they'll still need to identify themselves, unless 'anonymous'. Thinking on... Happy to add your blog link!

  4. You could make a parallel between virtual conversation and the classical dialogue between the reader and the (author of a) book.
    And then, it's also about playing always 'real', even in the 'virtual' world, downsizing the differences between the two, as you constantly remember that there is only one world.