The Visual Culture of Online Learning in Higher Education

© Copyright 2019 Deanna Ratzki, Ryerson University.


Screen grab of my zoom call with my students' cameras off.
Ratzki, Deanna. Screen grab of zoom lesson. Caledon, Ontario. 20 Apr, 2021. Digital Photograph. ©Deanna Ratzki

In the world of visual culture, we are encouraged to not merely look at what surrounds us, but rather to understand the broader context of what it is that we see. In an increasingly digital world, this sense of visual culture expands into ephemeral digital spaces that connect people who may have otherwise never been connected, via various digital platforms. In the context of higher education, it is no secret that learning has been increasingly digitized to keep up with the rise of technology. While this eventual transition to perhaps a one day fully digitized experience of higher education would take trials, experts, increased funding and time to attain, the perils of the Covid-19 pandemic have forcibly sped up this process. In observing how video conferencing tools such as Zoom have become paramount in pandemic-induced online learning, this project strives to display the ways in which video conferencing has contributed to the world of higher education. In doing so, this project aims to answer the following research question:

What has the pandemic revealed about the experiences of students and teachers who have been involved in video conferencing for online learning in higher education?


In approaching this research question, I have consulted academic sources devoted to the study of online learning in higher education from both prior to and during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic so as to better inform my own insights of online learning. While there are countless written sources that discuss the various facets of online learning, there are far fewer sources that exemplify their findings through the very medium of online learning. I have therefore decided to approach this project by presenting written academic insights of online learning through a medium of video conferencing, so as to better show my respective audience what I mean, rather than simply telling them about my findings.

Here you will find a link to two versions to my final project. You may select either one to view – they both cover the same materials. However, one is far less than perfect, with poor audio, poor video quality near the end, background noises of children and animals, and was cut off due to a lack of accessibility to a stable Wi-Fi connection. The second recording is my full presentation that is arguably better presented than the first distracting version. I have decided to include both so as to show you the perils I experienced in creating this project.

I have also added two images to this post. One as an example of what it is like to be isolated as an instructor whose students do not want to engage (“Screen grab of zoom lesson”). Another as an example of exactly what I see when I lecture asynchronously (“Picture of my workspace”). Due to a poor access to stable Wi-Fi connection, I am forced to record asynchronously with no one present to gauge interest, with artificial lighting due to my camera’s inability to properly capture natural light and still show my face. In these images you will see the evidence of isolation in online learning, from the perspective of the instructor.

Online Learning in Higher Education: Pre-Pandemic

In his 2020 book titled Learning Online: The Student Experience, University instructor George Veletsianos discusses his own experiences with students of various backgrounds who have experienced a digitized form of higher education, prior to the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic. In several chapters of this book, Veletsianos tells the story of students who have faced some sort of barrier that has impinged their ability to learn in an online setting. These chapters are of particular interest to my research as I found that they often coincided with the same problems that students have faced as a result of shifting their learning to an online format as a result of the pandemic. While in no way does Veletsianos discount the advantages of online learning in higher education, he importantly concludes his work by highlighting the responsibilities of the instructors, and by extension, the institutions developing online education. Veletsianos makes an important point that has proven to be paramount in successful online learning, which is that it is integral to understand the learners, what they need, and why they need it (pp. 165-168). It is only through successfully addressing these questions that online learning will be permitted to be an effective alternative to traditional in-person education.

Photo of my workspace with my computer open to Zoom, reflecting my image.
Ratzki, Deanna. Picture of my workspace. Caledon, Ontario. 20 Apr, 2021. Digital Photograph. ©Deanna Ratzki

Online Learning in Higher Education: Pandemic

In his essay titled, “Welcome to Zoom University,” Sean Lynch provides critical, contemporary insight on his own experiences in digital learning as a direct result of the pandemic. Despite harnessing a perspective derived from his American university experience, Lynch’s arguments possess a sense of universality in their call to action for better online learning in higher education as a result of Covid-19. Lynch discusses liberal institutionalized motives that intended to provide widespread accessibility to learners of many backgrounds, however, in his experience, online learning has made for a greater sense of disconnect, alienation, and isolation than advantage for higher education students.

Lynch’s insights reveal that the motives of liberal institutions often revolve around improving the profitability of the institution itself, rather than improving the experiences of those who pay exorbitant tuitions to attend (pp. 81-82). Despite making note of the ways in which his accessibility to technology and a quiet workspace have allowed him to transition smoothly into an online learning environment, Lynch makes note of a widespread lack of student accessibility to authentic interaction, which has been replaced by an overwhelming sense of isolation for many who have experienced in-person learning (83). Lynch makes note of how the pandemic may impact everyone, but it does not impact everyone equally (84). Lynch concludes that the perils of online learning may outweigh the advantages, which have been quickly brought to light by the millions of student experiences of “Zoom University” since the outbreak of the worldwide pandemic (81).

The Cinematic Gaze Intersecting With Isolation 

In integrating notions of the gaze into the world of online learning, we are able to better understand why it may be so difficult to not feel isolated. This largely relates to our own understandings of the cinematic gaze, where one finds pleasure in looking and absorbing information (Mulvey 234). When we extrapolate this cinematic gaze into video lectures, we are able to observe striking similarities in they ways in which cinema and video lectures serve as video renderings of information. But when we are asked to become a part of that which we are so used to simply looking at, we change what we find comfort in knowing, transforming what once was a pleasure, to something less satisfying in having to disrupt our gaze by participating. It is when this transition from looking to participating is not easily integrated, then, that we struggle to not feel a sense of overbearing isolation, in longing to find pleasure in simply watching a lecture.

Online Learning in Higher Education: Post-Pandemic

While at the time of creating this project we are still living in a worldwide pandemic, there are aspects of online learning that we may make informed inferences on based on what we have learned thus far. Based on the ways in which countless universities were able to quickly shift into a digitized learning platform and make the necessary ongoing changes deemed necessary as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a sense of revolution that comes with this adopted learning style. For schools such as Ryerson University, which is often referred to as a “commuter school,” students and faculty have saved significant amounts of money by not having to travel to school. But for students and faculty in programs that require a form of hands-on or practical education, these savings may not have been worth the limited learning they have been exposed to in a digital format. For students and faculty with accessibility to adequate technologies, great internet bandwidths, and quiet, ergonomic spaces to work, digital learning may be a more suitable format for their experiences. But for students and faculty with a lack of accessibility to any one of these factors, their experiences would render completely different from their counterparts with more suitable access. Therefore, in understanding the adaptations necessary for online learning in higher education, there are various experiences that must be considered so as to best suit individual requirements in pursuing higher education.


While online learning in higher education may have been an inevitable occurrence in this increasingly digital age, there are important factors that have been revealed by the urgencies of the Covid-19 pandemic that must be addressed before the digitization of education is further pursued. These urgencies primarily revolve around limiting the sense of isolation that comes with online learning. This sense of isolation ultimately needs to be addressed by institutions and instructors alike, in exploring critical questions at the outset of a course, such as “who are the learners?” and “what do they need and why?” (Veletsianos pp. 165-168).

Works Cited

Lynch, Sean. “Welcome to Zoom University.” Edited by Meghan O’Rourke. Yale University Press, 2020, pp. 81-85.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975).” Critical Theory, a Reader for Literary and Cultural Studies, general editor, Robert Dale Parker, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 234-235.

Ratzki, Deanna. Screen grab of zoom lesson. 20 Apr, 2021. Private collection.

—. Picture of my workspace. 20 Apr, 2021. Private collection.

Veletsianos, George. Conclusion. Learning Online: The Student Experience. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2020, pp. 165-168.

—. “The Learner Who Compared Online Courses to Face-to-Face Courses.” Learning Online: The Student Experience. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2020, pp. 11-20.

—. “The Learner Who Used the Family Computer.” Learning Online: The Student Experience. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2020, pp. 49-58.

Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.