Last week I took part in Bhikkhu Anaalayo’s online course on Women in Indian Buddhism (run out of the University of Hamburg) by delivering a lecture using Adobe Connect. It was a peculiar experience, talking to myself in my own office, with no sense of any audience, and only my own image on the computer screen to make eye contact with. I found myself – somewhat ridiculously – trying to look interested in what I was saying, so as to offer myself encouragement that someone was listening! The lecture was followed by a Q&A session conducted through the “chat” function, which was also a challenge, with several conversation threads overlapping with one another and no possibility of face-to-face interaction. It was also, however, really interesting to participate in this international course, and to hear from other scholars around the world on a wide range of topics.
The experience has led me to reflect on the question of online lecturing and what benefits it might bring to HE and scholarship. One obvious benefit of online lecturing is that it can enable us to reach out to a wider audience, or a more dispersed audience. This is particularly helpful in a small field, where it is often difficult to recruit for a traditional Masters course based at a single institution, for example. It also allows for a scholarly exchange between peers, which is particularly important if we have no colleagues in close fields of research at our own institutions. When lectures are recorded and made available online, as with this course, the lectures also become a lasting scholarly resource.
As well as the Women in Indian Buddhism course, I am aware of another online lecture series that is aimed at fulfilling these two functions, in Jain studies. I have not yet had time to watch any of those lectures but hope to do so in due course. The potential benefits for the (very small) field of Jain studies of this sort of initiative are clear.
And what of the pitfalls? Well, I must confess that I found the experience of lecturing far less enjoyable and far more draining than I usually do. Normally I find that interaction with the audience helps to inject some of the energy that is needed for the lecture, and indeed when teaching I would not normally even think of talking solidly for an hour without breaking for questions and discussion. The questions were also less satisfying by the online method, just because of the communication difficulties of one side being limited to written questions and comments. That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the experience or find it worthwhile. However, the format has definite drawbacks from the perspective of the lecturer, in comparison with a traditional lecture.
I suspect the drawbacks are also significant for the audience, from what I could tell from my own experience of listening to some of the other lectures. The major problem for me was finding a clear hour and then maintaining concentration while sitting at my desk with a million and one other things clamouring for my attention. (Perhaps this is a sign that I need to meditate more!) The comparison that strikes me as most helpful is with film-watching. If you go to the cinema to watch a film you are transported into a different world, but if you watch one on the TV it is too easy to also send a text message, tidy the coffee table, knit, make a cup of tea whilst half listening… It seems to me that in entering the lecture hall or conference venue we are entering our equivalent of a cinema, in which it is at least harder (though certainly not impossible) to be distracted. The value of lecturer and audience being physically in the same room together should not be under-rated in that regard.
These drawbacks aside, I will certainly consider engaging with online lectures again, though only in cases in which face-to-face lecturing is not an option. The opportunity to take part in an international course and accompanying discussions has been very enriching, and I trust that there will be many more such initiatives in the future, bringing together scholars and students from across the globe.