Volume 52, Issue 5 p. 2077-2092
Open Access

Longing for connection: University educators creating meaning through sharing experiences of teaching online

Brandi Fox

Brandi Fox

Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE), Deakin University, Docklands, VIC, Australia

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Margaret Bearman

Corresponding Author

Margaret Bearman

Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE), Deakin University, Docklands, VIC, Australia


Margaret Bearman, Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE), Deakin University, Docklands, VIC, Australia.

Email: [email protected]

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Robin Bellingham

Robin Bellingham

Faculty of Arts, School of Education, Deakin University, Burwood, VIC, Australia

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Andrea North-Samardzic

Andrea North-Samardzic

Department of Management, Deakin Business School, Deakin University, Burwood, VIC, Australia

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Simona Scarparo

Simona Scarparo

Department of Accounting, Deakin Business School, Deakin University, Burwood, VIC, Australia

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Darci Taylor

Darci Taylor

Deakin Learning Futures, Deakin University, Geelong, VIC, Australia

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Mathew Krehl Edward Thomas

Mathew Krehl Edward Thomas

Faculty of Arts, School of Education, Deakin University, Burwood, VIC, Australia

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Michael Volkov

Michael Volkov

Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW, Australia

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First published: 18 May 2021
Citations: 7


This paper presents a reflexive analysis of how university educators experience the shift to increasing online teaching in 2019. We explore what it means to be an online educator in contemporary higher education and aim to raise questions about how we approach online education and understand ourselves as educators, informed by a sociomaterial lens. The research utilised collaborative autoethnography (CAE) to facilitate meaning-making and uncover complex perspectives through collaboration and conversation. This enabled us to question what we as educators were losing and what we were gaining as a consequence of shifting to more online modes of teaching via university mandated platforms and processes. Through this methodology, various themes emerged: the role of corporeality; how we constructed ourselves through texts; how others materialised us in virtual spaces; the experience of online time; and our transforming practices and identities. This paper provides a snapshot of a significant cultural milieu in academia as we were afforded time to engage in reflexive practice about teaching online just as the academic world was abruptly mandated to shift almost wholly online. It also provides unique insights into the significance of understanding ourselves as both embodied and social, and the importance of community within academia.

Practitioner notes

What is already known about this topic

  • Higher education's shift online, both before and during COVID, has had a substantial effect on university staff, including discomfort and loss of agency.

What this paper adds

  • Considering the material and embodied is important in online education, particularly because it can be taken-for-granted and hence overlooked.
  • Feelings of disconnection can result from the inevitable gap between how educators represent themselves online and how others perceive (“materialise”) them online.
  • Experiencing a lack of connection with online students provides the opportunity to question assumptions about student experiences and develop more nuanced online teaching practice.
  • Teaching requires some kind of reconciliation between the linear time as laid out in learning design and the not-yet-here/always-there time of online learning.

Implications for practice and/or policy

  • Attention must continue to be paid to the experiences of educators as even experienced ones find teaching online disturbs identities and practices.
  • Collegially sharing virtual spaces may assist university educators in making sense of the shifts demanded by online teaching and allow more active modelling of meaning-making processes for students.
  • Teaching may benefit from deliberate consideration of developing online personas and reflection on how to accommodate them within academic professional identities.


Teaching online is now a necessary part of higher education. Courses that were previously taught primarily face-to-face have become digital; the pandemic has ensured this is an almost universal experience across the globe. The challenges of this are not new: shifting online means that university educators have had to change both how they teach and how they understand what it means to be a teacher (Dhilia, 2017). However, feelings of ‘burnout’, from disconnection and emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and lack of personal accomplishment have been reported for many online educators (Hogan & McKnight, 2007). Moreover, the shift to the online is perceived and experienced by educators as troubling, creating significant emotional labour, fraught with issues of power, identity and student autonomy (Cutri & Mena, 2020; Dhilia, 2017; Hanson, 2009); such feelings appear to be heightened by the pandemic (Takayama, 2020). While these accounts provide useful and somewhat disturbing data about how educators feel about moving online, there is a need to move beyond personal accounts. A deeply reflexive and theoretically grounded interpretation through academics making meaning of their own experiences can illuminate the nuances and complexity of our shift to online teaching.

The authors of this paper, referred to as R1–R8, are an interdisciplinary group of teaching academics at Deakin University with management, marketing, accounting, psychology, education, sociology and computer science backgrounds, working in Business and Law, and Arts and Education faculties as well as the central university portfolio for teaching and learning. We were mostly experienced, and some of us are expert, in online teaching. We wanted to deeply understand our own experiences in undertaking a centralised shift to online educational design, as representative of a broader move to online teaching in higher education. Our chosen methodology was a Collaborative Autoethnography (CAE) or a group study of self. CAE is “a qualitative research method in which researchers work in the community to collect their autobiographical materials and to analyse and interpret their data collectively to gain a meaningful understanding of sociocultural phenomena related in their autobiographical data” (Chang et al., 2012, pp. 23–24).

CAE is particularly relevant to understanding the implications of the move to online teaching, where the overlay of technology disrupts academic identity, not just in terms of being an educator, but being an expert (Cutri & Mena, 2020). The demands are considerable: both cognitive and affective as well as requiring new types of managerial skills (Dhilia, 2017). This is a longstanding issue. In 1995, McWilliam and Palmer coined the phrase “tech(no)bodies” to describe how the cyborg nature of teaching troubles boundaries. In 2002, Wallace reported how the introduction of online teaching created on-going dissonance for academic identities, who found themselves cast more as “production workers” (p. 207). Conceicoa's (2006) phenomenological study describes an overwhelming workload but also rewards. These troubling experiences continue into the pandemic (Watermayer et al., 2021) and indeed are made more visible as they are felt by almost all rather than a few. They suggest a challenge to academic identity that thread from the beginnings of online education to the present. CAE, therefore, provided a means to explore these concerns collectively, drawing on our experiences as educators and our expertise as academics. While others have used joint reflection to reveal challenges of loss of agency and presentation of self to students in the move to online teaching (Fletcher & Bullock, 2015), we analysed our own experiences through consideration of the bodies, objects and spaces associated with teaching online.

Research on online spaces often overlooks embodiment (Enrique-Gibson, 2016). Sociomateriality, whereby “there is no clear, inherent distinction between social phenomena and materiality” (Fenwick, 2015, p. 83) offers the means to examine embodiment within online learning (e.g., Bayne et al., 2014). Associated with many sociomaterial perspectives is the idea of the assemblage—experiences and practices are constantly being shaped ‘hanging together’ through a series of endless interactions. Within an assemblage, academic identities are held within a nonlinear and dynamic construction of ‘becoming’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988). Overall, we aim to provide insights into what the shift to online teaching means for educators, by attending to our social and material interactions.


This research was prompted by a centrally sponsored course redesign project that focused on major online curriculum innovation. The project aimed to redesign units/courses for online delivery, selected from Business, Law and Education courses. The project ran just over 2 years from late 2018 to 2020 and was facilitated by a centrally located project team of academics, learning designers and digital resource developers who worked collaboratively with faculty-based academics. There were five underpinning pedagogic principles; ideally learning is scaffolded, activity-focused, feedback-focused, supported and social (Elliott & Taylor, 2019). These principles were contextualised within each discipline and were thus operationalised differently depending on the unit/course. A series of simultaneous capability building activities ran in early and mid-2019 to support scholarly research and encourage cross-disciplinary collaboration. Our research project stemmed from this work.

CAE provided a safe and collegiate space to explore our experiences as research. Chang et al. (2012, p. 24) describe how in CAE, “each participant contributes to the collective work in [their] distinct and independent voice. At the same time, the combination of multiple voices to interrogate social phenomenon creates a unique synergy and harmony that autoethnographers cannot attain in isolation”. In other words, participant-researchers can reflect on their practice, while simultaneously reflecting on their colleagues' experiences, together. This method further ensured that in our study we were not research subjects nor researching others; instead, we were researching with our colleagues to make meaning of our individual and combined experiences (Heron & Reason, 2006). While there is research that uses CAE to explore aspects of higher education such as STEM and Arts education (Sochacka et al., 2016), it is less widespread in research on online education (see Duffy et al., 2019).

Our CAE group met seven times, once a fortnight for 90 min, over a single teaching period or ‘trimester’ between August and October 2019. The first five sessions were dedicated to the purpose of data collection. After each of these meetings, various themes arising from the discussion were distilled into provocations for individual reflection over the following week. Written responses of between 500–1000 words per participant were then shared with the group before the next meeting. These reflections were designed to prompt reflexivity while we were actively teaching, researching or supporting online teaching and learning. Table 1 illustrates the weekly provocations.

TABLE 1. Weekly provocations
Meeting Provocations

  • How has the redesign project changed the way you approach your teaching?
  • How has the redesign project changed accountability in your unit(s)?
  • Have any power dynamics changed in relation to redesign project unit(s)?
  • How has technology changed the boundaries of your work?
  • Was there a time you felt these boundaries were overstepped?


  • Who do you think you are as an online educator?
  • Discuss a moment/moments this week that you have had that are generative and positive with your online teaching?
  • Describe a time this week when your offline practices crossed over online?
  • Do you think there is a paradigm shift and where?


  • Reflecting back over the last week or so, is there an example of something that is working better now in the online unit(s) that was originally an obstacle or not working well that I needed to overcome?
  • Is there a time this week I felt positively with my teaching or good about being an educator?
  • Interrogating how/if learning and teaching online fundamentally shifts to something else …
    1. What matters to me about learning?
    2. Do I feel it is fundamentally different between online and face-to-face?
    3. Is there an example from the last couple of weeks that illustrates the challenge, disconnect, conflict or convergence?


  • What happens when we put ourselves in the shoes of the students?
  • What do we imagine what students do? Think? Feel? In response to our teaching?
  • What are the implications of this imagining for teaching?
  • How do we know if students are doing OK?
  • What is a marker that was used during the last few weeks to check how they were achieving?
  • What do relational aspects of teaching look like when mediated through a screen?

  • Reflecting on the last eight weeks, where to now?

The five initial meetings were audio-recorded and transcribed. The final two meetings were not recorded as they were to bring together our analysis. Before the last meetings, we were each assigned one transcript that we individually inductively coded using thematic content analysis, an established approach for analysing CAE data (Duffy et al., 2019). During these meetings, we discussed our findings and compared the themes arising and reoccurring from the weekly transcripts, identifying the common themes and their relationships to one another. These were extracted using comments and highlighted in Microsoft Word as a software accessible and familiar to all research staff. Additionally, the qualitative data analysis software QSR NVivo was used in the data synthesis stage by the lead author to interpret themes being discussed by the team in the fortnightly meetings. These preliminary themes underpinned our final analytical interpretations, which were initiated in a group meeting where we analysed ourselves, together. Table 2 illustrates our data collection and analysis cycle.

TABLE 2. Data collection and analysis cycle
Data Date Analysis Who Frequency
Transcribed audio August, September 2019 Synthesise data and identify preliminary themes from the 90-min meeting Fox, circulate to team Weekly
Read written reflections August, September 2019 Verbally unpack in meeting Whole team Fortnightly
Individual transcript review September, October 2019 Each member of the research team assigned a meeting transcript to thematically analyse Whole team Once
All transcripts reviewed November 2019 Team members meet to discuss themes from the individual transcript review, identifying reoccurring themes and form an analytical framework Whole team Once
Analytical framework November 2019 An analytical framework applied to all transcripts Whole team Once
Theoretical framework November, December 2019 The team reads literature related to the analytical frame and deliberates and discusses the theoretical framework Whole team Once
Draft paper February 2020 Paper circulated to team before the final analysis meeting for comment and review Whole team Once

At the first group analysis meeting (meeting six), we delved further into the significance of materiality within the findings. We collectively decided to follow a post-qualitative tradition, by invoking the nonhuman as key players and also embedding our analytic thoughts in theory (St Pierre, 2018). Using the sociomaterial assemblage as a sensitising notion (Deleuze & Guattari, 1998; Fenwick, 2015), we commenced a series of higher-level interpretations. Figure 1 is a snapshot of our half-day analytical framework discussion. After we analysed the transcripts together, two of the authors (Fox and Bearman) analysed the full data set holistically, bearing in mind we jointly agreed on theoretical frames.1 See Figure 2 for a semantic map of our meaning-making process.

Details are in the caption following the image
The first group analysis meeting
Details are in the caption following the image
Meaning-making process map


Analytical interpretations of our data resulted in six key themes; see Table 3 for an overview of each theme. We expand on these further below.

TABLE 3. Overview of key themes
Key themes Overview
Our corporeal selves Experiences of embodiment as online educators; what we lost by no longer sharing physical space with our students; a collective taking-for-granted of the material aspects of the platforms and ourselves
Constructing texts Online teaching is comprised of writing texts/videos, through which we represent ourselves in a (semi) permanent way
Materialising Our presence was materialised only when students viewed our texts; the platform could materialise us as well (e.g., through showing when we were online). The gap between representation and materialising could lead to feelings of disconnection
Ourselves in time Time in online teaching and face-to-face teaching operates differently; our online time was boundless
Defining the virtual world through absence/comparison with presence We understood and interpreted online teaching through our experiences of face-to-face teaching
Our shifting practices and transforming identities The often uncomfortable experience of online teaching, which troubled our rapidly changing identities as educators, was something that we shared

Our corporeal selves

Questions around corporeality and technology continually resonated in our study. We spoke about bodies, often implicitly: “if I'm awake, even if I'm at home, I'm online” (R8). More frequently we discussed student presence in face-to-face: “you might get two or three students that come up to you at the end and kind of whisper their issues to you” (R8): “if they're in the classroom and … they're not getting it because they're giving me scrunchy face, then I can see that” (R2). In our reflections we acknowledge that in face-to-face classes our bodies are seen; they are explicit and tacit at the same time. However, as we transition to teaching online, they become implied. The notion of ‘being present’ changed.

Most of us longed for the physical embodiment of both ourselves and of our students within the walls of the university setting. We missed and even mourned the ability to use physical spaces. No longer can we “walk [students] down the hall …” (R8), instead we became a disembodied voice on the phone or text in an email. We experienced being a “tech-(no)-body” (McWilliams & Palmer, 1995) as a loss of self. We repeatedly yearned to be standing in front of our students, and not just sitting in the office or working at home. Location was key not only in work but where we live—inner city and suburban environments. We pondered aloud how students, who live on campus, make the choice not to come to class. We sought to understand the spaces our students were in because it underpinned the push to the online teaching milieu.

The software itself was an unspoken affordance of what you can and can't do in “a Collaborate session”,2 or “a Cloud site”.3 The “systems” forced us to tacitly work-around. When they were explicitly discussed it was around challenges: “…we want to do this and we've got several units across both courses that want to use this, well you can't. Why not? Because [the Learning Management System's architecture] doesn't support it” (R8). But the mention of the platforms and software skated around corporeality: this was taken-for-granted.

Constructing texts

The significant work of constructing texts/teaching artefacts online dominated our discussions. We mentioned physical objects: laptops and video cameras and phones. We used these often to construct texts (in the broadest sense) which allowed us to represent our corporeal selves at distance. We spoke frequently about typed messages such as emails and discussion forums and other forms of text, particularly videos, which were part of the online redesigned units.

We discussed how we created texts/artefacts before inhabiting virtual spaces, setting up our spaces so that we can move through them and engage with the students as we might in an on-campus environment: “[I set up] preconstructed break-out rooms that students go to, and I flow in between the rooms and everything, and then I can pull them back into the one big room” (R5). The movement from once-off pedagogy to recorded approaches also influenced how teachers/materials co-constructed each other: “It's already written there, [the] whole trimester is laid out [online], and it is hard to alter things in real-time” (R3). Online takes away some of the flexibility and real-time changes that we are afforded on-campus during face-to-face teaching and learning. Moreover, online designs are often constructed for a stable and predetermined knowledge of what it means to ‘learn’ online. We concluded that when we construct texts, we create permanency, or at least its illusion.

We constructed our virtual selves in the texts/artefacts in different ways: “I love doing videos. I'm a show woman …” (R5) “Videos, I feel like they are commitment” (R2). However, sometimes we found constructing very hard: “I'm fine having a chat in a seminar room, but as soon as you put me into a Collaborate session or putting stuff online, there's too much ambiguity there. There's too much that I don't know. I don't know if [students] are reading it. I don't know if they're liking it if they're engaging with it. I don't know how they took my tone…” (R1). It was the unknown reception that we found to be the most difficult in how we constructed the texts and artefacts that represented ourselves.


As we spoke more about ourselves and online teaching, we began to understand how materialising occurs when the texts/artefacts/virtual selves are constituted through observations within digital spaces. We curate texts and represent ourselves; students materialise us within virtual spaces on laptops, tablets or phones, in offices, homes, on the tram, any place and any time. This can unsettle, as we do not know when, where or why they are interacting with our virtual selves. We also sometimes felt like (endlessly performed) versions of ourselves produced for the benefit of our students, “It's a piece of me. It's me, but it's not all of me. It's like a second Facebook version of me” (R7). This raises the question: what are the curated identities that we choose to share? What have we chosen to hide? We feel more deliberate in what we do but paradoxically feel less in control over how this is received by our students.

We are also materialised by things other than our texts and videos. For example, “students when they go online, they see the little green dot to show that I'm online” (R8). In some instance, we may never know how and when we are being materialised. We are complicit in this ourselves when we materialise our students, unknowingly to them. We move unseen in these same virtual spaces while we observe others; our roles as educators shift towards surveillance. “I feel like I'm more of a prison guard if I have to check how many times students are logging in…, is that teaching?” (R5), “I clicked on and see what was happening in [other educator's sites] without telling them, because I thought, ‘Well, if people get to look at mine, I'll go and look at theirs’” (R5). Sometimes we are revealed: “there's a little, a window there that says, “Hi, my name's [R8], I'm here to help” (R8). In all these instances, we grapple with issues of surveillance and power.

Ourselves in time

New technology places additional demands on our time: “I hate having to spend time learning the technology, then after three months it is going to be changed” (R4). We come to work differently when the parameters around work ‘time’ are reshaped under the banner of flexibility. We noted that the capacity to loop in time and revisit points of learning, can be a hazard for the online educators: “… things play on your mind more, as well, because if you're just in a face-to-face class and you've got a time, it's bounded by half an hour, or whatever, if someone asks you ‘Have you got more information on that?’ or ‘Is there another handout?’ and the answer's just ‘Nuh’… there's an onus on [the online educator] to keep providing more and more, rather than just feeling like, there's a boundary around that…” (R3). This capacity to loop backward and forward in time illustrates one of the many demarcations between face-to-face and online teaching and learning. Online, our time is boundless. As educators we found ourselves sometimes clinging to the comfort of our embodied on-campus practices: to do so we give more and more of our time. This affords and allows us to acclimatise to our current conditions as online educators, but it is the time that is otherwise spent on other endeavours in our professional and personal lives that is now lost.

Defining the virtual world through absence/comparison with presence

We noticed the virtual world through absences, understanding it in terms of the materialities that were no longer present. We longed for things that we could not quite express. For example, we described a feeling of loss; “I’m not getting anything from it” (R1) leading to apathy or having “no energy”. We used what we had known before as a point of comparison: “… ‘I think they're okay,’ because I feel like we're at this point in the unit [students are becoming visible through their engagement]. And then I thought, ‘Well, how do I really know that”? (R3).

Many of the students were invisible, not represented and unable to be materialised. “60% of students are doing stuff that I have no idea; you never hear from them …” (R5). There was the sense that this was more than disembodied, it was that they were completely absent: “they are there but not there” (R5), “… you don't see them. You have nothing to do with them” (R5). At the same time, we discussed how our understanding of student engagement (face-to-face or online) was often self-focused (how are they responding to me?). We questioned what we knew about student engagement when we were on-campus, even as we continued to long for the face-to-face.

The lack of visibility and limited understanding of engagement provoked a realisation of the tenuousness of connection between ourselves and the students, which was exacerbated by online teaching. “…I feel disengaged myself, I don't really care if they are using, they are not using, it's up to them…They want something, they shout…. why should I worry about something if they don't worry themselves…” (R5)? We wondered if educators need to feel needed and/ or appreciated. One of us commented “[earlier] you said, ‘No one needs me anymore.’ So, I wonder if fundamentally, therefore, when we are doing these things online, we feel that we are redundant” (R6)?

Our shifting practices and transforming identities

As our practices shifted, so too did our identities. Our sense of confidence in our agency transformed into a sense of uncertainty about where our agency was and how to enact it. It was likened to a sense of redundancy that went to our very sense of ourselves: “… this is interweaved in our identity, this is who we are, you know. … this is going to sound trite, but when someone doesn't appreciate [our teaching efforts], yeah. It does hurt” (R8). For some of us, online would never fill the void: “… we're just going to have to define professional fulfilment through other things … if we feed off the collaborative learning experience…we're just going to have to realise that if we're teaching online, we're not going to get it” (R4). Like others in the literature (Hanson, 2009; McShane, 2006), this led some of us to feel exhausted, apathetic and unfulfilled. Our questions then upon reflection became, how do we fill the void that we are feeling and experiencing in these sessions? This led us to wonder, how is this void shaping both us and our students as educators and learners?

Several of us have worked closely with the professional identity literature and were struck by how our identities were in rapid flux. One of us noted: “…I found it was hard actually to say, ‘who am I?’ ‘What's my identity as, specifically, as an online educator?’ Because somehow it's hard to separate” (R4). This raised questions: what does teaching mean within a predetermined constructed curriculum? How is being a ‘good teacher’ tied to who we are? What happens when what you know as ‘good teaching’ changes? In the case of online teaching, we had gaps and questions, divergences as well as convergences. Many of us felt isolated and exposed at the same time: “You have to kind of expose yourself without getting anything back in that mode and it is just really confronting” (R1).

How we felt and what we were experiencing was inexorably enmeshed with our process of becoming: “And one of the things that I felt most acutely is this sense of isolation and loneliness in there, at least at the beginning … And so, that was really interesting in terms of what am I. … I have become this thing that curates to a passive presence in there even though one tries, but there is nothing coming back…it's an emptiness…” (R4). The isolation, emptiness and exposure take what we know as a certainty—we are university educators—and makes it ambiguous. Uncertainty and emotionality fuelled each other. Unease was palpable, almost startling. It was as if this private concern was given a shared voice, and through this, as a group, we realised that we shared discomforts, emotional burdens and troubled thoughts. The ambiguity and uncertainty around professional identity have left us with questions of who we are. This disturbance was neither wholly positive, nor was it negative.

We questioned what it meant to be ourselves online: “How do I be authentic online? It's so easy to do face to face when it's natural and spontaneous and that's the part that I like of me as a teacher and I just sort of think, does that come across in online? I'm not sure.” (R6) We were uncertain if we were feeling that being an ‘online educator’ is somehow deficit. We were left with so many unresolved questions and feelings: “It's like all the other aspects of our identity is pushed out. Like our identity is not robust enough to accommodate online educator.” (R5); “… I'm actually comfortable online … But … the students. It's not what they want.” (R5); “I can't disentangle who I am and what I like about teaching …” (R4). We continually grappled with these concerns, alone and together. We articulated that these experiences within the online space contributed to the reshaping of our identities as educators.


Mcwilliam (2004, p. 89) argues technology in universities “disfigures academics' work and identity”. Through our collective experience we described how our practice and sense of self are shifting— refigured as much as disfigured— as we move teaching into online spaces. Our analysis encompasses our corporeality; how we are materialised at distance; the role of time in online learning; what is absent and how we come to know this; and how we have changed in our virtual “classrooms”. When we reflected on ourselves in action, as well as in reaction to others, we explicitly discussed physical conversations and spaces as well as our virtual connections through text or online video calling, using our voice and videos; in some sense we were dichotomising real-life from online. It was through writing this paper we have come to more deeply grasp that online is also real-life, and it affects and infiltrates our physical bodies. It is physical in and of itself. The online world is co-produced through a complex system of physical materials such as minerals, plastics, wires, cables, as well as through the social and self. Similarly, we are co-produced by and within that complex system. And this sparked questions: What does it mean to us, our peers, students and communities to materialise ourselves (and each other) in this way? Will we always be comparing our virtual to our embodied selves? These form avenues for future research.

Some, but not all of us, experienced phenomena that have been recognised in the longstanding literature on online education, such as feelings of loss and disconnection (Hogan & McKnight, 2007), lack of control and threats to our professional identities due to changing power dynamics between educator and student (Cutri & Mena, 2020; Dhilia, 2017; Hanson, 2009); thus, we add to this already robust area of understanding. The unique insights of our research are due to the focus on materiality and corporeality, which is significant given not only the existing need for further research on embodiment in online education but also the widespread shift to online learning and teaching during the pandemic which has all but removed physical embodiment from higher education for many of us.

We built upon previous educators' experiences of corporality conglomerating with technology in higher education, which has been explored for well over two decades (See Enriquez-Gibson, 2016; McShane, 2006b; McWilliams & Palmer, 1995). McWilliams and Palmer (1995, p. 32) asked what are “the dangers and opportunities inherent in becoming a tech(no)body” and how does this disembodiment affect our understanding of both ourselves and our students? We think the theme that we have called ‘materialising’ addresses some of the implications.

Pangrazio and Bishop (2017, p. 5) call materialising “giving material form to the digital information and data encountered in everyday life”. We take this notion of giving material form one step further and suggest that in online teaching, materialising occurs when the texts/artefacts/virtual selves are constituted through observations. The importance of observation aligns with Barad's (2007) notion that instruments of observation (or apparatus) dynamically and iteratively reconfigure the surrounding world. We suggest that virtual constitution is similar but different to that involving physical co-located artefacts, where observation can be a peripheral act, for example, something caught in the corner of our eye. In online education, we tend to feel more deliberate in our observations.

As materialising suggests, the notion of what we do as online educators is strongly interwoven with who we are as university educators. We follow those identity theorists who suggest there is no “authentic” self and that identity is something that is “performed” for others (Butler, 1990; Goffman, 1956). As online educators, we portray and conceal ourselves; we continue to represent ourselves irrespective of how we view ourselves. What struck us was the constant comparison of the online to the embodied: it was how we were able to collectively comprehend the state we were all in.

We all felt to a greater or lesser degree, discomfort with not knowing what our students were doing, echoing the work of others who similarly note that student autonomy can make online educators uncomfortable (Cutri & Mena, 2020; Dhilia, 2017; Hanson, 2009). It seemed to us that an integral part of our teaching identity is a sense that our students are learning. But how did we know what this looked like in an online classroom? This discomfort with a lack of knowing what our students were doing was sometimes quite considerable. We therefore asked ourselves: why are we mourning these physical spaces and bodily connections so deeply? Is it that we have lost something or perhaps even that we cannot quite determine what we have lost? We wonder if we might have been lamenting something that was never there. Perhaps while we as educators may have felt this embodied connection with students, many of our students may have felt entirely disconnected from us. We grappled with the thought that the online modality may bring to light the poor connections that already existed with students, which were masked by the trappings of campus socialising and the occasional corridor conversation.

Another particularly important finding is a new understanding of time. As we move into online learning and an increasingly technology-mediated life, we noticed that it shifted how we managed time. We turned to Deleuze and Guattari (1988) who distinguish between chronological (chronic) and aeonic time, to help make meaning of this. Chronological, chronic or linear time is the typical rhythm of the university: the start of teaching, assessment dates, examination periods, finalising grades. On the other hand, aeonic time is:

The indefinite time of the event … an already-there that is at the same time not-yet-here, a simultaneous too-late and too-early, a something that is both going to happen and has just happened. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988, p. 262)

In the online world where we are materialised, we never leave. We feel like we are constantly present through our various devices. If we exist in video or a discussion board post/text we are there whether we are logged in or not, seemingly forever available. How can we learn to be comfortable with our perpetual presence—and possibly our students' perpetual absences? At the same time, we have to reconcile these different types of time: the fixed and linear expectations of our institutions, being ‘already there’ and simultaneously the ‘not-yet-here’.

We have finalised this discussion during the pandemic, which in itself has played havoc with all forms of embodiment. Experiences have varied from place to place however, as the early accounts in the literature describe, higher education has been upended and teaching online has become a global necessity (Bozkurt et al., 2020). We suggest, that for many, materialising self online has become the only mode of educational connection. This has significant impacts on what it means to be a teacher. For example, Gourlay et al. (2021) write of how physical and spatial boundaries have been rearranged and Watermayer's (2021) survey of over a thousand UK academics suggests deep concern that the future of online educator is instrumental rather than pedagogic. The pandemic must exacerbate what is already troubling but it is also making it more visible. We hope that through interrogating our practices on a deeper level, we will confront what we used to do as much as what we are doing now.


This study suggests the need to alleviate some of the commonly reported sense of loss and isolation, which may improve experiences for staff and, consequently, students. Notably, we were mostly experienced educators: expertise in online education did not necessarily reduce or change the sense of disturbance or emotional burdens. One suggestion is to enhance the social connection between educators; our own experience with the CAE revealed that this helped us come to grips with our concerns and see new professional possibilities. If, as one of us stated that we had to learn to “be OK with the fact that we were less” (R5), then this was a burden best shared rather than one faced alone.

One possible practical means to achieve this is to share online classroom spaces within a community of educators; invite collegial guests into virtual spaces. Within these, in-depth and thoughtful discussions could be modelled online amongst ourselves, discussing some of the problems we pose alongside our students and why we think that they are important. This serves several purposes: it prevents us from being ‘so alone’ in our teaching; it shifts surveillance to establishing social etiquette around shared teaching spaces; and finally, it helps us reconfigure pedagogy (and hence how our students view knowledge and knowledge construction) in collaboration both with colleagues and the design spaces that we find ourselves within.

As with other studies (Cutri & Mena, 2020), our findings suggest that working with technology is more than ‘learn to teach’ tips. This has implications: educators must take account of the different kinds of representing and materialising in the virtual environment, and the social and emotional impacts of this presentation of self. Ajjawi et al. (2020) have drawn from personal studies of celebrity portrayal to consider what it means for students; perhaps we as educators can also learn how to manipulate our online personas to maximise our students learning and our own comfort.


CAE as a methodology is bounded by what is possible within it. This is a limitation: we have been deeply embedded in our own perspectives. However, we have simultaneously been jointly and joyously reflexive, transforming ourselves even as we conducted our research. Something we had not found in our discipline and faculty area allowed us to find different and new meaning: “I don't think I would have really reflected as much as I don't think I would have taken the time think about what happened—can I do something—can I change? It's help[ed] teasing out more things” (R4); “[the CAE] allowed me to get my power back” (R5).

A strength of our multi-disciplinary CAE group was that it eschewed traditional academic boundaries. We captured an important cultural milieu in academia; this CAE took place just months before the academic world was abruptly mandated to shift online due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We should note the most significant omission: the student's voice is missing. This is the most pressing area for future research; the relationship between student and teacher can only be understood through both parties.


In our CAE, we took time to interrogate our transformation and pose questions in the hopes of making meaning of our individual and collective experience. Through this, we hope to establish ways of alleviating some of our dilemmas, if not our discomforts. We worked together as a team, to collectively build new meaning from our experiences through discussion. We gave voice to things that had not been spoken, and materialised ourselves in new ways, through the texts we wrote, the transcriptions of the discussions we had, and now this paper. The result was similar to what Turner (1969) says is the experience of ‘communitas’ where we both made and unmade our sense of what it means to become an ‘online educator’. We are still grappling with how our collective experiences fit into a larger picture: how does an assemblage of educators/units/students/technologies make and remake the course, the university and broader society? Participating in the CAE has indicated to us that the process of researching ourselves has offered the best solution to the issue of isolation and the need for support by providing a sense of community through shared experience.


This research was supported by Deakin University​'s CloudFirst CoDesign evaluation project.


    There are no conflicts of interest with regard to the publishing of this work.


    This research was conducted under approval of the Faculty of Arts & Education Human Ethics Advisory Group, Deakin University HAE-19-119.


    • 1 The photo, taken by author Fox, illustrates the meaning making processes involved in CAE. Chang et al. (2012) stresses the importance of the analysis process as iterative, occurring over time and through our own individual interpretations as we analysed the data through our own disciplinary lenses.
    • 2 Collaborate’ refers to Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, which is a video conferencing software used by many of us for teaching online units.
    • 3 Cloud’ refers to the Deakin online learning management system (LMS).


    As an in-depth qualitative project, open data access is not possible for ethical reasons.