Accepting Vulnerability During Online Transition – University Affairs



A conscious desire to be vulnerable can relieve anxiety and build a sense of community.


For months, instructional developers, instructional designers, and other education specialists have helped college educators transition from in-person instruction to online instruction. Many of them have encouraged asynchronous teaching, where possible, to ensure accessibility and flexibility for students. However, little attention has been paid to the vulnerability and frustration that teachers might experience during this process. We know this because we are two of those educational developers.

It’s ironic that much of our programming includes synchronous webinars that require attendees to attend at a designated time for a specific duration. While we encourage asynchronous teaching, we have learned from our own experience that universities also need to be honest about the potential pitfalls and frustrations faculty can encounter when attempting to teach online. Going online places most instructors in a new, vulnerable position.

In the spring, we hosted a synchronous workshop called “Welcoming Students to Your Online Classroom”. It was designed to encourage educators to identify strategies for building and maintaining community in their online courses. We also had a hidden goal of creating an environment where participants could discover what it means to be a learner in the online space. Both stated and hidden goals were achieved, albeit unintentionally.

Let us tell you about our synchronous disaster

The session started off strong. There were over 160 participants and they were eager to “meet” through the video chat feature. The workshop was going as planned until we moved people into their breakout rooms. The creation of small focus groups allowed participants to collaborate, replicating how students could interact with their peers and report back to the whole class using a live document. The activity was designed to model how instructors could promote collaboration and nurture community by replicating this technique in their online courses. We knew that trying an active learning technique with a large group could be risky, but in the spirit of community building and individual vulnerability, we decided it was important to try.

Once the participants were in their small discussion groups, we watched the collaborative document live in anticipation. It was quickly filled in as participants generated new ideas and strategies. We were delighted to bring people back into the large group for a debriefing and discussion of all their great ideas.

Suddenly, the unthinkable happened. The crowd document, once filled with brilliant ideas and comments, went blank! One of the participants accidentally deleted the entire work. In the blink of an eye, everything is gone. Even though we frantically tried to “undo” the erasure, it didn’t work as participants continued to communicate with each other via the live document. They exclaimed:

Everything has gone crazy !!

What just happened? We have disconnected

Where did it all go? here too… yes here too! I did not read the comments

Yes, comments and questions are missing

It’s too chaotic!

i would never try that !!!


There was a lot of confusion and disappointment. After everyone returned to the large group, the conversation continued in the chat function of the video conferencing platform. In fact, there was an explosion of discussion. So much discussion that there was no way to debrief the traumatic experience and respond to questions, comments and concerns expressed by participants. It was overwhelming and difficult to determine whether the ongoing conversations contextualized the experience as an illuminating incident or whether the participants were expressing their distress.

Lessons learned

Facilitating a synchronous online learning experience can be overwhelming. We had enlisted the support of a wonderful moderator, but it was hard to ignore every time a participant logged out of the session and returned multiple times. Even though we knew that any internet connection issue would force participants to “leave” the session, it was hard not to wonder if people were leaving because of the content of the workshop or (worse yet) the facilitation. We can only imagine how frustrating it could be if we tried to teach a class synchronously.

Likewise, as the animators, it was almost impossible to supervise the cat. In part, the volume of questions and comments could have been attributed to our goal of cultivating a welcoming community atmosphere during the webinar. We intentionally encouraged participation at the start of the session and normalized it by asking participants to say ‘hello’ and answer various questions through the chat feature. This practice aligned with the literature on creating vibrant e-learning communities and even before the live documents disaster, the participants’ conversation was very solid. While the activity in the chat feature was encouraging, the inability to respond directly to participants was a source of anxiety, especially for two instructors who enjoy engaging in class discussions. Certainly, in a synchronous course an instructor should consider how a technical assistant or even groups of students could monitor and facilitate the chat.

Teaching requires a certain level of trust and vulnerability. It is well established that collaborative learning in large groups promotes community strengthening and improved student learning (Blayone et al. 2017; Garrison, 2016; Lenning et al., 2013). Additionally, one aspect of community building is individual vulnerability and we were willing to take a risk and believe that the newly formed community would rally around us so that we could learn from any possible failure. We have modeled a good pedagogy by facilitating collaboration in small groups. As the participants in this webinar were almost exclusively professors, they saw how students could in the future come together and support their risky adventures in online education.

Neither synchronous nor asynchronous online teaching can replicate face-to-face lessons. However, just like teaching in person, there is an element of uncertainty and surprise. Instructors can do their best to test the technology and rehearse, but we often encounter the unexpected. During our webinar, we expected to encounter internet issues, potential issues affecting participants in small discussion groups, and difficulty managing the chat feature. Deleting the entire collaborative document was something we never imagined. Instructors won’t be able to predict all potential scenarios, but a conscious willingness to be vulnerable can relieve some anxiety and build a sense of community. Not only should we be humble and kind to our students, but also to ourselves.

Susan L. Joudrey is the Senior Curriculum Officer for the Center for Learning and Teaching at Dalhousie University. Mabel Ho is the Curriculum Developer at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Graduate Studies.


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