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There has been a recent change in the world of Peloton, and for the third time it has me thinking about the intersection of Peloton and pedagogy.

The first time I wrote about how Peloton balances structure, differentiation and motivation to draw the user into the experience and increase their engagement.

The second time I wrote about how I, somewhat to my surprise, found the relative ranking against other Pelotoners de-motivating, rather than motivating. It turns out that competition against others is not something I’m looking for when it comes to fitness.

This time I want to write about what’s happened since participants have returned to the Peloton studios to join the instructors for class, because I think it’s interesting to consider the ways the pedagogy changes when those participants are present versus the many months of pandemic Peloton, when it was just the instructor narrating into the camera(s).

As with the previous posts, I think there’s something to be learned about the challenges of “teaching from a distance” of the pandemic and how those challenges and what we learned from them may inform pedagogical approaches now that much more instruction is again happening face-to-face.

1. The instructors are clearly more engaged and lively when people are present.

I did not know that Ben Alldis had a discernible personality prior to seeing him with the people in the room during a class. I’ll be frank; I did not care for it. Not that he has a bad personality or anything, but I looked to a Ben Alldis class when I wanted to zone out while a fitness automaton told me how fast and hard to pedal.

I imagine this is what my family feels like when they see me being animated in a public/professional situation and wonder where that guy is at home. That guy is at home resting up for the times where he has to be this other guy in public.

I have been critical of some arguments for the return to face-to-face teaching that seem rooted in faculty desire to perform for an audience again, rather than taking a broader view of student needs around access, but it is undeniable that human contact brings more and different energy into the experience.

For the most part, this is probably a good thing, as it makes the experiences more engaging for all involved, but I still think it’s a mistake to think that face-to-face instruction solves any of the underlying issues that plagued institutions prior to the pandemic. It’s obviously a relief to be back to what is familiar, but it’s a mistake to allow that relief to paper over things that should change.

2. Watching an in-person class is a more entertaining experience.

Not only are the instructors more engaged and alive, but the presence of others in the room allows for a dynamic that’s similar to a comedian doing “crowd work” (deliberately interacting with the audience) during a performance. One of the initially odd parts of pandemic-era Peloton class was when an instructor would say something that clearly would elicit a response in a class of people and then pause for me, thousands of miles away and not even in sync temporally (I don’t do any live rides), to fill that gap.

I felt sort of embarrassed for both of us in those moments

But when there is an audience and the instructor says, “Ready to go!” and a cheer goes up, the whole thing makes more sense. Jokes and asides they tell to the screen without an audience get a reaction in the room that is entertaining to watch.

For teaching, this makes me think of how the real-time feedback and interchange with students often leads to unexpected and often interesting discoveries. The co-creation of the experience is greatly enhanced by real-time face-to-face interaction.

This co-creation is still possible working remotely and asynchronously, but creating the dynamic where this happens under those conditions takes much more planning and care. It is worth considering how to capture that spirit of co-creation when we are required to work at a distance.

3. With people in the room at Peloton, I felt less like a participant at home.

While the presentation was more entertaining as a spectacle, there is a significant difference in a class where it seems as though the instructor is speaking directly to you, versus watching other people have that experience.

It felt as though I was invited to watch and appreciate what was going on, but my participation was incidental. Even though the instructors still spend time addressing the camera directly and talk explicitly about those of us at home, the visual of seeing others in the room and the reality of how the instructors interact with those people created a greater distance than classes without others present.

Also, for me—and this is likely a function of my personality and a good indicator of why I do not enjoy group fitness—seeing the live participants was a distraction. There was one class where a dude was clearly not following the cues, off cadence, not even in the same ballpark on resistance. During the cool-down minute at the end, he was up out of the saddle grinding away, trying to boost his output metric.

What an a-hole, I kept thinking. Rather than being focused on my fitness journey, I was thinking bad thoughts about some guy I’ll never see again.

4. The actual routine/program got a little loose.

Because of the distraction of the crowd and the impulse to interact and joke, it seems to me that the instructors are much more likely to miss a particular cue or flub a transition. It’s not really a big deal and makes little difference to the ultimate outcome, but it’s interesting to consider what it means for instructors in terms of increased cognitive load when riders are in the room with them.

I know for myself, a live presentation and discussion seems much more like improv where I’ve come in with a plan and we freelance from there, rather than a scripted experience. The same seems to happen with a Peloton class when riders are there in person.

5. People seemed very happy to be together. (And I was happy to be at home.)

I’ll be honest, witnessing all those people huffing and puffing together in a studio in close proximity to each other made me wonder about the likelihood of the spread of a potentially lethal virus. Peloton requires either vaccination or proof of a negative test within 72 hours to go to a live class, but we all know that this is no guarantee of a virus-free atmosphere.

Even though the covalent booster has been in my arm for a couple of weeks, it’s more risk than I would be willing to tolerate for the experience, even though it was clear that everyone was having a very good time and that the instructors were thrilled to be interacting with others again.

The good news was that the home experience is more than satisfactory, even if it’s a little different when people other than just the instructor are in the room.

President Biden tells us that the pandemic is “over,” and looking at a crowded spin class, you can understand why someone would say this, but it isn’t over for everyone, and I wonder how much or how well higher ed institutions are doing at allowing those who perceive in-person school to be a risk they cannot take to still participate.

They might learn something from Peloton on that front.

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