Tag Archives: online teaching

Living ‘Virtually’

A “virtual seminar” is a non-sequitur.  So is a “virtual experience,” unless a person really does feel enchanted by what they see on their phone or a computer screen.

A tech columnist in the New York Times just noted that he’s never been more busy that with his “virtual” life online.  Indeed, he expressed some pleasure with “living online,” noting that he has more invitations to watch, observe and participate than he has ever had.  He said he was surprised at how lonely he wasn’t.

It’s possible, I supposed.  And to be fair, many of us are able to move onward in this troubled spring doing some of our work online. But here’s the rub.

We can easily let our language deceive us to accept that “living online” is existing in some sort of elevated state. All we need, goes the logic, is a good screen and the endless platforms and distractions it can offer us. Without doubt it surely gives us a chance to connect with others, many of whom have arranged their public screens a little like the department store window displays. Others use Twitter to hone their skills as potential insult comics. These kinds of things surely represent some kind of life, but one that seems less than fully actualized.  Media forms that truncate our natural sociality diminish us.  We offer a smaller and less nuanced version of ourselves online.

“Computer-mediated reality” remains a distant runner-up in the sweepstakes of what it means to be part of the world.

I’ve tried to convince myself and my students that finishing out a class this spring as a “virtual seminar” is doable.  And we are all game  to try.  But I will sorely miss being in the same space with my sexteen students–reading their body language of engagement or boredom–as we bore into the work of a series of thought-provoking writers. Earlier in the semester we surely had moments of insight.  I’m less certain that will happen online. To be sure, the readings can continue without a meeting together, but probably about as well as a book club that never bothers to collect themselves in someone’s living room.

A “virtual seminar” is a non-sequitur.  So is a “virtual experience,” unless a person really does feel enchanted by what they see on their phone or a larger computer screen.  Can that be possible?  I’m from Colorado.  Enchantment is seeing Mount Evans tower above Denver in the late afternoon.  Enchantment is sitting at Sprague Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, looking at 14,000 foot peaks that seem close enough to touch.  Enchantment can even be taking in the expanse of New Jersey’s beautiful Rosemont Valley from a neighboring ridge.

Language often has a way of laying down apparent “truths” that aren’t quite so obvious on closer examination. I’m glad to use computers as tools to wrap up this broken semester.  But “computer-mediated reality” remains a distant runner-up in the sweepstakes of what it means to be part of the world.

Face to Face in the Classroom


Source: TCNJ
                 Source: TCNJ

There are compelling arguments for the need to keep college affordable and accessible. But at what cost?  

In an informal reception on my campus, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff wondered why universities would go to the trouble of creating ideal environments for students and teachers to jointly “conspire together,” only to be so indifferent about giving these advantages up for the disembodied world of a computer screen. It was a good observation, and a reminder of how precious the idea of a physically connected academic community actually is. I sometimes wonder if sages a few decades from now will puzzle over why many academics privileged to be a part of thriving bricks-and-mortar campuses were so willing to allow the interpersonal richness of their classrooms to be eclipsed by instruction reduced to the frozen gaze of a monitor.

I regularly remind my students of the durable verity honored by leaders who run many of the world’s great businesses and institutions. As a former head of Sony Pictures noted, success usually comes to those passionate enough to want to be “in the same room” and “breathing the same air” with clients and associates. No CEO expects to successfully lead a powerful organization using Skype. The fact that there are so many people who know they must foster personal relationships surely accounts for why our airports and airliners are packed.

There are indeed compelling arguments about the need to keep college affordable and accessible. But at what cost?  We are already seeing students who have grown too comfortable alone in front of a small screen.  For many, screen time now rivals sleep time.  “Screen addiction” in South Korea that it is now recognized as a full blown mental health problem.

To be sure, online courses are cheaper to run, and may contain some compelling but necessarily “canned” presentations. Often an online “hybrid” course is only nominally “interactive.”  Feedback to the student is usually limited, unilateral with the online teacher rather than multi-lateral as happens when people actually meet in the same space.

I know that the training I’ve taken online has been completely forgettable: little different than  the maw of electronic content that washes over all of us daily.

The cost problem is also aggravated as well by unnecessary status-striving.  Too many families make decisions about higher education as if they were choosing an expensive car.  The choice may be more aspirational than practical. Money spent for tuition to an “elite” private college  certainly yields an ersatz kind of social prestige.  But the renown of many private institutions regretfully lies more in their corporatized athletic programs than their devotion to undergrads.

A lot is at stake for new a first-year student.  Will their first classes more closely resemble an airport waiting room prior to an overbooked flight?  Will the person in charge be able to learn their names?  Answer their questions?  Are the best faculty teaching freshman?  Are individual class sections intimate enough that it is actually awkward for a student to not participate?  There is real genus in the liberal arts college model of “small” classes and dedicated professional teachers.  It continues to make possible what communication theorist John Peters sees as the baseline for the richest chances at connection with others: meeting in the same space where we are close enough to touch each other.

Comment at: woodward@tcnj.edu