The online teaching and learning environment can sometimes feel like an abyss. With the countless technologies and platforms, plus the various needs and preferences of students and instructors alike, it can feel like trudging through a bog with nary a spot to rest. While some faculty find the online environment energizing and invigorating (“Check out this new way of doing X, Y, and Z!” they may shout), my experiences have varied widely depending on the nature of the learning goals and the energy level of the students and myself on any given day, especially when the very real experience of “screen fatigue” has hit. And hit, it certainly does. I have found myself filling the silences of a quiet chat box with incessant talking some days while other days I have sought the reassurance of a head-nod or eye contact from students. Alas, the sea of faceless avatars on the Virtual Classroom screen created teaching challenges that became sometimes more disconcerting than the proverbial sounds of crickets in an expansive classroom with nearly 100 students staring blankly at me. The performativity of the experience was exacerbated by trying – and try I do! – to maintain interest, engagement, and energy during a class.
While I may not be able to “solve” the challenges of online teaching and learning in the span of a blog post, I have found that reframing my experience into the dynamics of sound and silence has been a liberating way for me to approach it. And, in fact, this new way of imagining the teaching-learning relationship has been helpful to ensure that students have the space and opportunity to find their own voices and that I remain mindful of stepping back for the myriad voices to emerge.
During Winter 2021, I “observed” two online classes – one synchronous and one fully asynchronous with video content. (To protect anonymity, I have used Dr. S to refer to the faculty member teaching the synchronous class and Dr. A for the faculty member teaching the asynchronous class and I have maintained the non-gendered pronoun they/them when referring to these instructors). After the two observations, “silence” became an important and ironically loud feature of my teaching. When watching Dr. S teach, for example, I heard their voice and the sounds of fidgeting or shuffling of materials, but I also saw what seemed to stand-in for sound: physical movement. Dr. S was expressive and shared content and thoughts in several ways while trying to engage their students. While most of the students kept their cameras and microphones off, the experience was still noisy – visibly and aurally noisy. Conversely, Dr. A’s course was almost eerily silent. Their asynchronous course included a welcome video and their voice-over for lectures, but, seemingly, all the engagement and student-to-instructor or student-to-student interaction occurs online through typing. Sound is noticeably absent.
Both experiences – ostensibly polar opposites – have stuck in my mind because of the discomfort I felt with each. Initially, I thought I was uncomfortable for different reasons; namely, I wanted Dr. S to ask questions of students or to use the whiteboard or hear another voice from the group while I wished Dr. A could have offered synchronous segments or asked students to post videos with voices so that the commotion and sound of learning was clearer (and I see the entrance to a rabbit hole when assigning “sound” to “learning”). However, when I dig through to the heart of the experiences, both styles of teaching demonstrated by Drs. A and S lead me to the same place: silence.
Arguably, they could lead to “sound” or “voice” as much as silence, but I’ve been thinking more deeply about the use of silence in teaching and learning. In the physical classroom, I use silence while waiting for students to respond to a question I’ve posed, or I walk quietly around the room to ask teams how their work is going while they focus on specific tasks. My silence occurs easily because I am physically present – I hold space within the classroom and that doesn’t always require sound.
In the synchronous online environment, though, the ease of physical presence is strained. I see students only if they choose to turn on their cameras (most don’t and I certainly don’t force them) and I am seen through a small, boxed screen based on the device students are using for class. In this way, then, silence is more noticeable. It becomes awkward more quickly – rather than my holding space quietly for students to think or to give our auditory systems (and my voice) a break, remaining silent in an online environment leads to questions (most often typed in the chat box rather than spoken) like “Dr. Abboud, are you still there?” And their seeming discomfort typically leads to my filling that space with repetition of instructions or general statements and reminders about what they should be doing, which inadvertently sometimes disrupts their thinking processes and pulls them back to me, to our class, and to the “lesson” rather than allowing them to stay focused on their learning and engagement.
This continuum of silence-sound is striking. Much like most concepts and discussions in teaching and learning, there is not one “correct” way to approach this. Not surprisingly, some scholars have focused on the implications and effects of silence and sound in teaching/learning environments and I imagine we’ll begin to see much more fodder based on the last year-and-a-half’s pandemic or “crisis teaching” and learning experience. While the contexts vary, the following six researchers provide a strong overview of the ways in which sound and silence have been discussed in educational environments:
- Duran (2020) focuses on silence in asynchronous distance education. She uncovers 6 learner-focused themes, including purposeful silence, absorption of silence, silence as demarcation, silence within voice, deliberate engagement strategies, and building trusted community, as the hallmarks of creating effective asynchronous learning environments.
- Zembylas and Vrasidas (2007) explore “silence as an important aspect of social presence,” especially in online a/synchronous interactions.
- According to Enloe (2004, 2015), there is a political angle to silence in the teaching/learning environment. In fact, Enloe argues, in the silence that is “usually taken for granted or not considered interesting enough for discussion or research [. . .] one can find politics” (ctd. in Harel-Shalev, 2020, emphasis added). The political or social orientation of who has voice or who is granted a platform to share that voice by those in power becomes especially significant here.
- Forrest (2013) distinguishes between “silence” and “quiet,” and argues that, in reference to Williams (2007) and others, “bodily human interactions of the classroom are the materials of the teacher’s and the learner’s craft” such that there’s an “interdependence” required. Silence subverts that if it’s used too early.
- The influence of “silence” on teachers becomes especially significant for Kozar (2016) who isolates the experiences of teachers in virtual English-language learning environments. She notes that visual elements (such as video) affected the teachers’ perceptions of wait time and that wait time increased after 5 minutes of class while it decreased in the final 10 minutes of class.
- Smith, Park, Parrish, and Swirski (2018) explain that “separation from technology aided individuals’ ability to engage with the activities and people around them [in an experiential learning setting]” and they have equated this to a form of necessary “silence” for increased engagement.
While these six examples provide some context and pathways into the larger sound-silence discussion, there are numerous others whose work and investigations bring to light the imperative of determining not only what we use to engage our students in online environments but also how we, as the seeming holders of the virtual space, “show up” and use voice or silence both to encourage and support but also to model inclusive practices that encourage all voices to engage in any number of ways. As instructors, it’s important for us to continue questioning when silence/sound are most effective, how to hold space in online environments, and why silence or sound can be so differently jarring in an online teaching/learning environment compared to a physical classroom. Ultimately, my brief investigation led to more questions than answers, so I’m encouraged to keep on this path. Hopefully, in time, I’ll find the spaces where I can wriggle through with nary a peep and those where I can bolt forward with a loud thunder!
Duran, L. (2020, January). “Distance learners’ experiences of silence online: A phenomenological inquiry.” International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 21(1), 81-98.
Forrest, M. (2013). “Practising silence in teaching.” Journal of Philosophy of Education, 47(4), 605-622.
Harel-Shalev, A. (2020). “Learning from silences.” International Feminist Journal of Politics, 22(3), 434-441. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616742.2020.1755335
Kozar, O. (2016). “Teachers’ reaction to silence and teachers’ wait time in video and audioconferencing English lessons: Do webcams make a difference?” System, 62, 53-62. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.system.2016.07.002
Smith, C. A., Parks, R., Parrish, J., & Swirski, R. (2018). “Disruptive silence: Deepening Experiential Learning in the Absence of Technology.” Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 18(1), 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1080/14729679.2016.1244646
Zembylas, M. & Vrasidas, C. (2007, May). “Listening for silence in text-based, online encounters.” Distance Education, 28(1), 5-24. DOI 10.1080/01587910701305285.
*All resources listed can be found through UWindsor’s Leddy Library Omni access portal
Victoria is currently a lecturer and sessional faculty member at the University of Windsor in both CMF and Computer Science, respectively, where she teaches graduate-level students about technical communications, professionalization, and emerging technologies. As well, she is a consultant/researcher with WEtech Alliance and WINCan. Prior to this, she held numerous roles as faculty and in administration in universities and colleges in Canada and the United States and she led national education strategies for organizations in the non-profit sector. Dr. Abboud earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Wayne State University and is a proud Lancer, having earned two bachelor’s degrees at UWindsor.