I interact face-to-face for lots of things. I present my research at in-person conferences. I socialize with friends and colleagues in the flesh. I do some of my banking in person and even shop in brick and mortar stores. But I’ll never teach face-to-face. (Remember, this is a parody piece of Schaberg’s Why I Won’t Teach Online.)
I know what you are thinking. What a throw back to the 1990s! Well, there is more. Welcome to my vida loca in distance education.
I understand the value of brick and mortar higher education. I appreciate that for many students it is a great way to have an adventure by leaving home for the first time and being able to reinvent their in-person personae by going away to school. Yet, there are several things I cannot do in a face-to-face class and these are why I will not be found pacing the front of a classroom, working the room. Not ever.
In a face-to-face class, I cannot get to know my students where they are most comfortable which is online (Nagel, Remillard, Aucoin, & Takenishi, 2018). Teaching solely face-to-face, I am not available for when the students need me, sometimes immediately, for crisis situations or to help them through complex experiences of studying at a distance. Sure, I could hold in-person office hours, but honestly, it is just not the same. Coming to my campus office would mean that my students would have less agency to negotiate the time and place in which we connect. So much of what happens in online communications involves culturally laden textual and graphic nuances. Part of what we are training students to do in higher education, after all, is to work with other people using the forms of communication that the students will use in throughout their careers. Digital literacy is an important part of developing a fully engaged citizen in 2018. That means working with students to develop the capacity to communicate and collaborate in digital networks, to critically use information and technologies, and to learn to learn in technology rich environments. Ultimately, students need to manage their digital reputations and online identity, and what better place to do that than within digital scholarship, with a mentor who is a digital scholar. So much of what happens in online communication involves the intangible qualities of human presence.
Schaberg’s opinion piece tried to resuscitate an argument that died a slow death over several decades. In the pre-digital era, eye contact and physical proximity were deemed necessary non-verbal elements to foster the intimacy and immediacy of human communication (See Argyle & Dean, 1965; Berger & Luckman, 1967; Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976; Wiener & Mehrabian, 1968). That research reflected an understanding of human language as it was originally situated face-to-face and demonstrated the problems of articulating theory based upon any limitation on the scope of communication technologies used or not used. In the decades since the ubiquitous use of communication technologies have broadened the avenues for developing intimacy and immediacy in human communication to include many that are not face-to-face (See Bates, 2015; Gunawardena, 1995; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, & Archer, 1999; Swan, 2002; Tu & McIsaac, 2002; Whiteside, Dikkers, & Swan, 2017). A professor no longer needs to be physically present in the same space with students, in order to establish a meaningful social presence. Because of current use of communication technologies, “presence and absence are no longer so strictly spatialized and actualized as near and far, and thus no longer fit so perfectly (if they ever did) with inside and outside” (Shields, 2006, p. 235). The space traditionally occupied by distance education, technologically mediated human interaction, has become crowded with the explosion of media initiatives for social, commercial, political, and educational purposes, where users have the opportunities to consume and produce both audio-visual content and its software platform of delivery.
Schaberg’s list of what is lost in the transactional teaching-learning space when students are out of sight includes subtleties of reading faces when students are silent. Schaberg espouses that there is no place for silence online, describes a face-to-face classroom example directing students to not speak but rather think in the quiet for a moment, and then concludes that silent reflection is not impossible online classes. There is richness in silence online for those with patience and the ability to create the digital space in which students can find quietness to think in the shared online presence of others. Silence on the line is awkward only at first. Researcher Duran (2017) has shown the value of fostering this silence in online courses and that indeed it has a place in higher education.
I cannot teach simultaneously across international borders in a one face-to-face classroom. Whether students are actively travelling the world or have their mobility restricted, they can overcome the physical restrictions of their locale to connect online with their classmates or their instructor. In international online courses, learners can connect across complicated national borders, and bring their current geographic contexts into their course discussions (See Gunawardena, 2014 for a discussion on how learners and curriculum are affected by these relationships). Through the Borderless Higher Education for Refugees Program at York University, I have been working with Don Dippo whose course discussions and group assignments demonstrate collaboration between learners living in Toronto, Canada, and learners who are persons of concern such as university students living in Daadab Refugee Complex, Kenya. We could not do this in a single face-to-face class. Face-to-face education is a privileged access point to higher education. Restricting access to higher education through one exclusive mode would be unforgivable.
Once the face-to-face class is over, it is just a memory. Verbal comments made in a face-to-face class are ephemeral. Residual digital artefacts of online courses, such as presentations, reflections, and discussions can be available to students after they have finished a formal course, and to students in future classes. An excellent example of this is The Landing, a social media site created and hosted at Athabasca University where some courses can have their discussion forums continue for years across different cohorts of students. More broadly speaking across all platforms of online communication, students have the volition to initiate interactions through current social media allowing for the interweaving of relationships with teachers and other students to continue indefinitely. Engaging in digital networks also means the potential for serendipitous reconnecting with students at synchronous online events, and asynchronous sites. I cannot write good letters of recommendation for students whom I have not worked with online nor seen mature over time through their curated online presence.
Schaberg offers his anecdote that over the years of asking his in-person students if they would prefer the course to be online, they say no. I swear, Schaberg ought to know by now, that, even for an anecdote, this is a flawed sampling method.
Schaberg describes online as ruled by boxes hiding the “rich stuff of life,” and learning alone for individual success. I argue that all formal higher education includes the deliverables created by individual learner being assessed with an individual grade and a degree solely conferred on the individual. (I digress for a moment and invite anyone who knows of a different formal higher education model at an accredited institution, to please, please, contact me. I would love to know more about that.) The political intersectionality many experience in face-to-face communications can be transcended or selectively revealed online. When I walk into a room, my age, race, gender, weight, mobility, among other qualities are deduced in an instance and influence how others communicate with me. I can choose to reveal or conceal these in online communications. In this parody piece, I have revealed something about myself by the 1990s pop culture references.
Unlike Schaberg, I believe in open and distance learning. It is not a black and white debate, in which face-to-face instruction will be supplanted by distance education. The two have different capacities. While the term distance education is not currently in vogue, online or e-learning seem limiting terms restricted to a particular time in the history of the evolution of communication technologies. Distance education predates the emergence of online technologies and will continue to grow and transform beyond current communication technologies.
What Schaberg does in a face-to-face class is meaningful but cannot touch the potential scalability that open and distance education has to serve the projected global demand for higher education. In practical terms, it is not within the global human capacity to build and staff enough the brick and mortar institutions to meet the UNESCO projected demand for higher education. The demand is expected to expand from less than 100 million students in 2000 to over 250 million students in 2025 (Bokova, 2011, p. 2). Together, distance and face-to-face modalities can deliver the higher education that students truly, madly, deeply need.
Mirroring Schaberg’s opinion piece, I will acknowledge that as a doctoral student I have no safety of tenure from which to take the stance expressed above views towards face-to-face education. Should you be reading this, as part of your investigation into my candidacy for a teaching position in a face-to-face institution, let me say thank you for your diligence and I hope you find my humor compatible with your campus’ culture.
For those who enjoyed the throwback to the 1990s, there were 16 purposeful references to 1990s cultural references in this parody piece. If you found additional accidental 1990s references, sweet! If you are a gamer, who needs the puzzle answers, then contact me directly and I will send you everything I did.
Argyle, M., & Dean, J. (1965). Eye contact, distance and affiliation. Sociometry, 28(4), 289-304.
Bates, A.W.T. (2015). Teaching in a digital age: Guidelines for designing teaching and learning. Burnaby, BC: Tony Bates Associates Ltd.
Bokova, I. (2011, May16). Address by Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO on the occasion of the UNESCO Global Forum Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education: Uses and Misuses. Presented at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization Headquarters, Paris, France. Retrieved from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0019/001924/192417m.pdf
Duran, L. (2017). Learner experience of silence in cohort-based distance education. (Doctoral dissertation, Athabasca University). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/10791/240
Gunawardena, C. N. (1995). Social presence theory and implications for interaction and collaborative learning in computer conferences. International Journal of Educational Telecommunication, 1(2/3), 147-166.
Gunawardena, C. N. (2014). Globalization, culture, and online distance learning. In O. Zawacki-Richter & T. Anderson (Eds.), Online distance education: Toward a research agenda (75-107). Athabasca, AB: Athabasca University Press. Retrieved from http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120233
The Landing [Website]. Retrieved from https://landing.athabascau.ca
Nagel, T. W. S., Remillard, C., Aucoin, R., & Takenishi, A. (2018). Findings on student use of social media at the collegiate, undergraduate, and graduate levels: Implications for post-secondary educators. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 15(1), Article 8.
Rourke, L., Anderson, T., Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W. (1999). Assessing social presence in asynchronous, text-based computer conferencing. Journal of Distance Education, 14(2), 51-70.
Schaberg, C. (March 7, 2018). Why I won’t teach online. The Times Higher Education [Website]. Retreived from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/views/2018/03/07/professor-explains-why-he-wont-teach-online-opinion
Shields, R. M. (2006). Boundary-thinking in theories of the present: The virtuality of reflexive modernization. European Journal of Social Theory, 9(2), 223-237. doi:10.1177/1368431006063342
Swan, K. (2002). Building learning communities in online courses: The importance of interaction. Education, Communication & Information, 2(1), 23-49. Retrieved from http://portfolio.educ.kent.edu/daltone/cmc/articles/dg_swan.pdf
Tu, C., & McIsaac, M. (2002). The relationship of social presence and interaction in online classes. American Journal of Distance Education, 16(3), 131-50.
Whiteside, A. L., Dikkers, A. G., & Swan, K. (Eds.). (2017). Social presence in online learning: Multiple perspectives on practice and research. Sterling, VA: Stylus
Wiener, M., & Mehrabian, A. (1968). Language within language: Immediacy, a channel in verbal communication. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.