Connecting online: A shifting reality

I’ve been thinking and watching and experiencing as time unfolds, and the different processes and interactions in my life adapt to the new reality of physical separation.

‘Online’ has unquestionably become more and more a part of life.


Are interaction and engagement the same online?

Is it *just* that there’s a screen between us?

No. Yes. Well no, but, maybe

– it’s complicated.

Actually it is different.

Everything is different. It is a different mode of being, and unlike what we’re used to, there are different parameters being applied not only to working/playing/talking online, but to life itself and this impacts how we engage.

For example, several months ago when I chose to type something online to someone, I knew I could also go see them. It didn’t matter if they lived a continent away, the possibility existed that I could go see them (maybe not right away, but in a month or a year I could) – and that put a different sort of expectation of that mode of communication in the array of possibilities. Of course I could go see someone, that’s what people do. Physical presence was primary, even if it was a distant possibility or might not happen frequently.

Not now. That possibility as we knew it has been removed and this impacts our conception and approach to engagement. What was a supplement is now primary and we have not necessarily recognised or acknowledged, what has been removed, and certainly haven’t replaced it.

I experienced this in working with my orchestra,

who are a dedicated group of adults all eager to learn, make, and experience music together.

Over the past few weeks the orchestra has met online a couple of times, in one of these group meetings with lots of little tiles on the screen. I did warn them that we can’t all play at the same time online… but they wanted to. Nobody wanted to mute their microphones, and what resulted was like a pixelated sort of aural indigestion mixed with a touch of sea sickness. Don’t get me wrong, it was a joyous rehearsal, but definitely not anything like the traditional in-person experience. The publicly available video conferencing tools are optimised for speech not music, and in conversation, generally one person talks at a time. When everyone talks at once the software can’t cope, and when a bari sax, violin, bassoon, and oboe (amongst a dozen other instrumentalists) all compete to be heard it definitely has a hard time deciding which participant should be prioritised.  There is no real chance of amalgamating the sounds at once, and in terms of hearing what’s going on, there was also the delay factor – that is what gives it a touch of sea sickness.

Where does this leave us? Does this mean rehearsing online is a failure or has no purpose?

Not at all.


After the second rehearsal, I found myself really using every ounce of my teaching knowledge to understand the experience of all those online – the learner/rehearsal participant and me as the leader/teacher. Now I know the person in the fancy shoes (I’m avoiding saying ‘standing at the front’) in a teaching setting should not be a “leader” (yes read that with a cliche definition of ‘leader’ with all the stereotypical baggage that goes with it) but there is a WHOLE lot of unspoken perception and awareness that goes will skillful facilitation of a group to enable each person to both come to the experience and give of themselves during the experience in a way that feels free and acknowledges their individual value. That sort of leadership is needed. Maybe it should be called ‘thinkership’ or something. (answers in the post please)

I was, and am, thinking –

what is missing? what do we want? what do we need?

How are we impacted by what has been taken away and how can we recognise this and then (possibly) heal those gaps and move forward?

Can we move forward without recognising this?

I don’t think so really. We may tread water, but not move forward. Ultimately there are cracks in our reality and without seeing them, it is difficult to be able to look at what we do have – technologically as well as at our physical disposal (wherever we are) – and then figure out how to use these things.

One important thing is not to attempt a direct substitution. It goes wrong with the best algorithms… lemons become lemon cleanser or this absolute cracker from a few years ago:


sweet toy, but the family might be hungry…

One thing does not equal the other, even when it sounds the same.

We’re just having our lecture online. Um, no. not just.

I was struck by the orchestra’s last rehearsal – because they are all so open, honest, and forthright. We all TALKED on the session, and afterwards, discussing what was good, what was missing, and I am the first to admit that I do not have a solution.

Good things came out of those online sessions:

  • We saw everyone. oh that was nice to see others!
  • People’s names went with face and instruments at the same time. -sometimes in a big group that gets lost, and it brought people together
  • It was good to interact with me – I conducted with extra life-sized gestures.
  • They heard themselves individually- at home you hear your own part.

It was a different focus with a different outcome and it was definitely a different experience.

We have to have the opportunity to think in new ways. This is a challenge and I don’t really have answers yet, but at least with the orchestra, we are carving a new path – together. In the meantime we are still meeting, but the focus has shifted. It’s not the same, and these new directions are both challenging and exciting,

and yes, I’m learning too.

Featured image CC BY-SA-NC by Arts Electronica


  1. Heather Bell

    Hi Laura
    I love the analogy of the baseball game and that is what is is like for orchestra. Playing together online is not very easy but I am excited to see how things develop for I imagine we will continue to meet in this new way for a while. The thing that is difficult for many is the fact that we are just not sure how long it will be till we get back to a new normal. For orchestra the drive of people to participate together is very special. How will our meetings develop? What will they start to look like? The demographic of the group is a more meet in person demographic but I think personal satisfaction at managing the technical things is very stimulating and satisfying. The experience may also give players the confidence to play out on their own in front of others if that helped. Maybe it is a time for learning more theory type things together and concentrating on the practical when apart. We know still that we can record apart and Then be joined together to make a better sound. We know it is work for you but it is really nice to for us and gives a sense of achievement
    Interesting times. Exciting times. For me personally I really hope that we can grasp this opportunity that we have been given firmly with both hands to reboot and rethink how we behave and interact with those around us

  2. Stephen Downes

    For me there is little if any possibility of meeting in person the people I meet online – if it ever happens, it’s for a day or so and that’s it. By contrast, the people I meet in real life I never meet online (except for the small number of people in our research group at the office, but I rarely see them anyways).

    I started offering distance education in 1987 and never really stopped. So for me the overwhelming experience of the pandemic is that nothing much has changed, really. Except for the number of people telling me I really don’t understand what it means to live and work online.

    No, it’s not the same. Online is harder for most because most don’t have a lifetime of experience interacting online. But for a lot of people (like me) who spent their youth with books and ideas, not people, online is easier. To me, it’s the in-person that’s hard, different, and takes getting used to.

    1. Post
      Laura Ritchie

      I totally agree – In person is another level of ‘stuff’. The new challenge with online for me is the orchestra – in non-musical terms it’s like running a baseball game where all the players are at their homes. How on earth does that work?! It doesn’t, not in the same way… that’s where I’m working to figure out the shift. I want to play ball! 🙂

      and as a p.s. I still genuinely and totally believe we will have an in-person cup of tea one day. Or maybe some of your family sourdough bread.

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