We need to confront not just questions about the feasibility of future and ongoing social distance but about working remotely and teaching via zoom as well.

What are the benefits and what is the price? How do we make the best decision for everyone? I’m not talking about school-age children. For that I rely on a recent headline in the Wall Street Journal: The results are in for remote learning: It didn’t work! (I posted that recently on our family chat to great applause and cheers from all the now-validated young moms in the group!)

But what about for adults? What about all the women I used to meet with in person, either one-on-one or in groups? Is zoom a viable long-term strategy? Last night when I finished a class, one of my students commented that “She could get used to this zoom learning.” It requires no driving, no time spent away from home, no dressing up, and as my usual hostess mentioned, “No cleaning the house.” There are definitely some big advantages. It’s so convenient to be able to just walk from the dinner table to the study instead of facing a 45-minute drive each way. I definitely could get used to this!

But…there is something lost. Less so in the one-on-ones than in the group settings. Even with all the bells and whistles that zoom has developed to deal with our Wi-Fi-dependent world, there is something missing. Actually, more than one something! In the first place it’s very difficult to have a discussion. I don’t like to lecture. I like everyone to learn from each other. This is much more challenging over zoom. It’s hard for participants to respond to their fellow students. It’s hard to get a meaningful conversation under way. This itself is a big lack and it leads to another problem – a much larger burden on the teacher to keep the class moving along and the students engaged. I find that I do a lot more talking and a lot more staring at a screen, wondering if I’m actually getting through to anyone.

The reason I wonder demonstrates another disadvantage of zoom – it’s extremely difficult to completely impossible to read body language. Not just in teaching but in all of your interpersonal interactions we place a lot of reliance on body language. We may not even realize how dependent we are on those little cues until they are no longer there. Teaching is not a one-way street. It’s meant to be a reciprocal relationship. It’s hard to create that over zoom; it’s hard to experience the reciprocity. It’s hard to know if the group is with you or not. And therefore it’s hard to respond to their moods, their questions, their concerns, their interest, or their total lack thereof. This for me is the biggest downside of zoom.

But that’s not the only one. Since many of us are sheltering in place with other family members, privacy is a precious commodity. It’s quite distracting for the teacher when family members – and pets – parade on and off the screen behind the participant, in various states of dress or undress! Sometimes I see my students engaged in conversation (at least they are muted) with their spouses or children during class. I get it. When you work at home, your children expect you to be constantly available and think nothing of interrupting classes, quiet moments, phone calls to share their latest thought. This too can be a distraction.

Additionally, in that search for a quiet spot in a busy, jam-packed home, many women choose their bedroom. I understand why they do. But when they lie down on their bed during class…well it’s obvious what comes next and watching someone fall asleep while you teach is perhaps the most troubling challenge of all! It’s hard not to take it personally, as a reflection of the class being taught (!) and just attribute it to the all-too-cozy environment.

I myself haven’t gone to evening classes in years because I tend to fall asleep in them. It’s one thing to fall asleep in a crowded auditorium (it’s still painful but it probably goes unnoticed) and quite another to do so in a small zoom class where everyone sees everyone else on their screens. Either there’s not enough body language or, in this case, far too much!

I don’t know what’s coming. I don’t know when we’ll feel comfortable learning together in person again. And I don’t know if, given the choice, my students will decide they’d rather learn remotely or schlep to class. I don’t really know what I want either (although I do know how much I’m enjoying not driving) I do know that some amount of remote learning and zoom classes are here to stay. And that we need to find a way to make the best of it.