When serving as a teacher I seldom think of my body when acting in a classroom. Of course there are some occasions when it comes to the foreground, such as when I fail to pull down a projector screen because of my short body length. I then need to fetch a chair in order to reach the handle of the screen. In the beginning of my career as a university teacher I was also painfully aware of my body when teaching. Sometimes when launching a new course I had moist palms, soft knees and a shaky handwriting when jotting down something on the chalkboard. But nowadays the body is often in the background of my mind when teaching.
There are probably very few who do not agree with the idea that we have bodies. However, when turning to the area of the internet and internet research, there has been an ongoing debate regarding embodiment online. Life online has been seen as a disembodied existence where people leave their bodies behind when going online. However, more recent texts point out that we do have bodies online. Depending on our purpose when acting online and also the type of platform, these bodies could look very different.
Teaching online could be understood as a professional practice in a formal setting. Teaching online could also be understood as an embodied existence, since internet researchers have found that online bodies exist. As a consequence questions like What do teachers look like online? and How do teachers handle their bodies in the teaching situation? occur.
As part of my forthcoming thesis entitled Online teaching practices: Sociomaterial matters in higher education settings, I set out to study teacher’s embodied presence in online teaching practices (Bolldén, 2014). Since a sociomaterial approach highlights the body in practices, I turned to this family of theories in order to understand teachers’ embodiment online. I applied three concepts of Theodore Schatzki – being a body, having a body and instrumental body – on my empirical data and found some interesting results.
One of the two settings studied was a university course carried out on a learning management system called itslearning©. Learning management systems are mainly used for text-based communication. However, images and icons are also used. In this setting, teachers chose different ways of embodiment, where one of them posted a photograph and a text describing the teacher. Another teacher did not upload anything and hence used the default embodiment provided by the system.
The second setting was a university course carried out in Second Life®, a virtual world. Aside from being embodied as an avatar, the teacher in this course also had a profile body and several other ways of embodiments. Common to both cases was that teachers showed a bodily presence and hence; teacher bodies could be understood to exist online. How these embodiments looked like related to both teacher judgements and to what the technology in use offered. Furthermore, I found that the teacher bodies could be understood as multiple and when discussing a body multiple, the offline body is included since it came into play in the empirical data. Teaching online means, among other things, to master a juggling of a body multiple. This was particularly evident in the Second Life case where the teacher was occupied with handling the avatar. I analysed these situations as a matter of both being and having a body.
Teacher bodies could also be understood to be bundled with online materialities in several ways. This bundling relates to the dimension of an instrumental body that are used to produce certain teaching situations. For instance, by positioning the avatar in the virtual world in a certain way, it contributed to reduce complexity for the students when it came to navigating in the three-dimensional space. Furthermore, teachers in this study also had strategies for keeping themselves present during the course. This was accomplished in different ways, such as writing messages or posting podcasts on a regular basis throughout the course.
Since teachers do have bodies online, these need to be handled. The referred study also suggests that bodies could be used for pedagogical purposes. However, to use a body in this manner does not seem to come by itself. This suggests that teacher training could highlight the very fact that online teaching is not a disembodied situation. Furthermore, an awareness and training of being a body online and using the body for pedagogical purposes could be part of teacher training.
The article referred to here is published in Studies in Continuing Education:
Bolldén, K. (2014). Teachers’ embodied presence in online teaching practices. Studies in Continuing Education. doi: 10.1080/0158037X.2014.988701