Ploughing through the Pew Research report on whether university presidents think the same as members of the general public when it comes to the value of online learning, I’m thrilled to discover that the opposite of online isn’t bricks and mortar any more. Such a relief, as this image is wearing out from its current overuse in Australian media commentary as a symbol of both capital investment in the physical fabric of universities, and cultural investment in traditional teaching practices, either or both of which are summoned up by the stolid presence of bricks and mortar.

But instead of focusing on the difference between online and a building, the Pew researchers counterpose being online to something called “in person”.  So,

Respondents in the general public survey were asked whether they thought a course taken online provides an equal educational value as a course taken in person in a classroom. Only 29% of all respondents said online classes offer an equal value. Six-in-ten said online courses do not offer the same value as classes taken in person, and 11% were unsure.

As much as I grasp anything about leading questions, it does seem to me that the qualities and experiences that radiate from our beliefs about personhood are going to dispose people towards this result.  “Online” goes with shopping and banking and various forms of risk; “in person” is only a skip away from “interpersonal” and has all those implications of authenticity, integrity and human thriving that we like to think of in relation to our physical presence.

But what exactly does “in person” mean?  It’s a bureaucratic term, largely, derived from an effort to figure out exactly who and where we are in the era of electronic communication. We can do things in person or on the phone, or on email.  The collaborators at Wiktionary have a go at defining it in plain terms and end up resorting to what it is not before going down in a tailspin on whether there’s a difference between actually present and in actual presence, which strikes me as one of those very fine distinctions that philosophers get into: “With one’s own body and presence, as opposed to radio, the telephonetelevision, or the Internet. Actually present. In actual presence.”

But it still seems clear to all concerned that in person is a way of doing things with your body in the same room as others. And this is where things get complicated, for higher education at least. Because although there’s consensus on the superior value of in person, universities are hemmed in with policies that carefully manage the risks inherent in all this co-presence, especially now that the doing-more-with-less strategy means that students are going to be piled up three deep in the classroom.

All university professionals are aware of the strong sanctions against using their bodies in improper ways, and students—who are also workers—are equally aware that there are powerful constraints that are both subtle and social placed on how they should behave physically while on campus.  Think about it: there’s really very little shouting or running on a university campus, except in the sports hall.  And as The Plashing Vole points out, despite the lurid covers of 1950s pulp paperbacks set on American campuses, there’s not that much action of the other kind.

We’re really trying to have it both ways backwards.  We want to preserve the mystical element of personhood that we believe is critical to quality learning, and we want this to be anchored in the physical body, but at the same time we want relatively little of this physical reality to intrude on the practice of teaching and learning.  In associated ways, we’re still trying to hang on to traditional ways of running meetings, holding student consultations, or managing project teams: by sitting in a room together rather than using any of the available webconferencing technologies. “It’s just not the same,” we wail as we trek to the airport for the nth time to fly interstate for a meeting that we could easily have held from the convenience of our own offices, giving the environment a breather at the same time.

How might this change?  Two ways occur to me.  First of all, I think we’re becoming more and more open to the possibility that some forms of interpersonal communication—being on the telephone, say—might start to constitute a form of being in person. As Skype quality improves and other business solutions sharpen up their high definition displays and sound quality, videoconferencing will really start to breach our defenses, because it provides such a clear sense of social co-presence in all bar the physical body—the part, remember, that we’re not really allowed to use. Secondly, the intensities of online gaming and roleplaying and the increasing sophistication of avatars will start to make virtual environments as meaningfully intense as in person. 

So why is it that the members of the general public surveyed by the Pew Research, including people clearly in the demographic of the digital natives, still doubt the capacity of online learning using these kinds of tools and intensities to provide equivalent educational value to the experience of being in person? Maybe the problem isn’t being online, but in having the kinds of wrongheaded online experiences that we’re hearing about so much at the moment. If learning online is like doing your tax return online, of course it’s not going to be very engaging.

But if learning in person as higher education expands is rapidly becoming like queuing at Heathrow or standing up on the train for two hours, or any one of a number of uncomfortably overcrowded in person experiences, its value might not hold up either.

(Footnote: as ever, words of wisdom from More or Less Bunk on this same report here.)

3 Responses

  • What happens if wrong-headed administrators don’t think that wrong-headed online experiences are really wrong-headed? More importantly, what if they don’t care?

  • Well then we have a problem with wrong-headed administrators, and their wrong-headed business models. The challenge I think is to try to develop some fairly clear expression of standards and objectives for engaging in online learning at all that can be used to measure wrong-headedness. At the moment, we’re all left shaking our heads and saying “But that’s just so wrong.” You can’t put this in a pie chart, and we live in pie chart culture at the moment.

    Nice you see you over here on the dark side, by the way.

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