Relating and being authentic in online learning

This initiative was for students at Masters level studying counselling and psychotherapy. Developing self and intersubjective awareness through digital learning is a very different proposition as there are many psychological differences in how we exist and interact online. This initiative offered an introduction to these issues from an expert and discussion space at the start of the programme.  

What did you do? Why did you do it?

We asked an external expert in the psychology of online relating (a counsellor and manager of psychological services with much experience in facilitating groups online) to present and facilitate a discussion with new student starters on induction day on the impact of meeting and learning online. This was a two-hour session including a presentation on key factors in online psychology, exercises to illustrate the points and facilitated interactive discussion. The aims of this session were to introduce the students to key concepts about how their relating and learning will be affected by being online and to facilitate a space where they can start to think about the impact of these online specific factors on their learning and self and intersubjective awareness. 

In our programme, the learning community is central and students learn as much from each other and the group learning experience as from content delivered by tutors. Our students are required to bring themselves to their learning, actively applying the theories they learn to themselves and increasing their self-awareness and intersubjective awareness.   This experience is hugely impacted by learning online and we wanted to tackle this impact head-on at the start of the programme and begin with a shared understanding and language to discuss this impact among students and tutors. 

Being aware of these can facilitate our ability to maximise the advantages and minimise the difficulties, adapting as well as possible to what is lost.   

One example of a theme is of being authentic online. Creating a space where students and educators can be authentic is positively related to a sense of belonging and personal connection in learning.  To do this, the particular challenges to authenticity online need to be understood and discussed. On the one hand, more personal information about ourselves can be disclosed (our homes, choices of décor and possible interruptions from household members or pets) sometimes inadvertently, with blurring between our personal and professional selves.  On the other hand, seeing ourselves constantly on screen enhances our awareness of how we are being perceived and increases the performative aspects of how we engage.  Each of these can be deselected, by using a virtual background or by turning off our self-videos, but these options also come with downsides to either how easily or authentically we are seen or perceived. 

The impact of this session was to raise awareness in students and tutors to continue these discussions about the impact of the online environment in the ongoing teaching. It also led to us having a general teaching policy in our programme that students must attend with videos on and to introduce much more smallgroup work in breakout rooms during teaching, Students fed back to us that authenticity and connection were much easier to develop in smaller break out rooms than a larger teaching cohort and this effect was much bigger online.  Regular screen breaks are also built into every teaching session to maximise comfort and concentration. 

References 

Balick, A. (2018). The psychodynamics of social networking: Connected-up instantaneous culture and the self. London: Routledge. 

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together. Why we expect more from technology and less from each other, New York: 

Basic Books 
Wilson, J.; Chazeaux, F.; Francis-Smith, C.; Dunn, K. (2019). When encounter becomes electric: an online 

group experience. In Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 18, 3 (p. 299-307) 
McLuhan, M (1964/2001). Understanding Media: The Extension of Man, London: Routledge Classics

The impact of this has been for students and tutors to regularly discuss the various impacts of learning online within teaching, and to refer to the concepts discussed at this session (eg disembodiment, non-shared screen experience, missing and exaggerated communication, performing and authenticity, no transition time, hierarchical platforms, online disinhibition effect and the intimacy paradox etc). 

Many students offered feedback about how helpful and interesting this session had been and continue to reflect on digital learning on their self and intersubjective awareness:  

‘Please can the slides be shared from the online psychology session; it was really interesting and useful and I want to think about it further.’ 

‘The activities were enjoyable and memorable… All of the above has played a part in my year on Zoom! Very relatable training, and the trainer was engaging and knowledgeable.’ 

‘I really loved it and found it the perfect introduction to the course (with it being online). I was so impressed by [trainer] that I have spoken about that afternoon many times to family and friends! … I’ve thought about that day a lot.’ 

‘I think elements would be extremely useful to students on other programmes to raise awareness and challenge some of the taken for granted assumptions about working online.  I have been able to directly compare my introduction to online learning to my partner’s experience of lecturing online for the first time (in another institution).  From our discussions, it seems like such a session would have supported their online learning community to start acknowledging some of the challenges they were facing, open up dialogue and therefore facilitate participants to start developing relationships (and a sense of shared responsibility for sessions) at the outset.’ 

Creating a space with student groups and tutors to discuss the impact of online working, with input from specialist knowledge about these impacts can facilitate teaching thereafter by opening the issue for ongoing discussion and adaptation by providing a shared language and understanding and placing this learning context on the agenda. 

Gillian Proctor. G.m.proctor@leeds.ac.uk, Counselling/Psychotherapy


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