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on doing it well versus just doing it…

October 15, 2014

lisa hammershaimb

The last few weeks have been a bit like a personal practicum in the study of communication/presence in a distance education venue. As I’ve written previously, the “missing professor” has been catalytic in the practicum and also quite influential has been my own faculty team and our student population, all of whom are distributed across the States.

The questions I’ve been rolling around a lot are: what is presence in an online classroom? What is presence in a place where you’re not physically present? How do you occupy the somewhat inanimate spaces of an online world with the sense of real humanity that marks the best face to face interactions of a physical world? I know direct correlation, because of the form itself, isn’t possible but there has to be some connection because though the form changes, our own basic need for relational connection at its core doesn’t change…so, how can one use the technology and use the interfaces to produce something similar enough to the feeling intrinsic in us all that produces a positive feeling of connection and out of that a learning moment?

Turns out, not surprisingly, when you look at presence in DE and connection points across technologically-mediated spaces there is no shortage of heady academic articles. They’re legit quite good (or at least the ones I’ve encountered) and even knowing that much larger brains than mine have been rolling these same ideas around gives me a feeling of twice removed kinship. That said, these articles can also be a bit daunting.

Reading extensively about the theoretical and the many syllabled — the large budgets and micro-sampling makes me feel a bit like somehow communication and presence must be something way more heady than my previous definitions. The endless recipes for appropriate blends of synchronous/asynchronous time spent in class and the occasional calls to add large doses of hybrid environments, sprinkled with AI learning tutors feels like, to continue on with a somewhat table metaphor, I’ve entered into the crazy world of molecular gastronomy when all I was expecting was to learn how to perfect my buttermilk pancake recipe.

Communication and presence, in these formats, are no longer ways to sit together and acknowledge shared humanity and learn from building on previous experince, rather they’re data points to be mastered and measured — customized and ultimately optimized. I’m all for all of these things (and admittedly love the subversive whimsy of molecular gastronomy and AI learning tutors alike) and yet I think there’s danger in what happens when you go so far down this technology-mediated pathway that you forget your students are actually humans. And not just humans but humans with messy, unpredictable lives who always pick the worst times to get violently ill or lose their job or make poor, self destructive choices…which flip the metrics in the wrong direction and confound the AI tutors and suddenly the environment that was so customized for the very best version of the student has no relevance to the newly broken version of the human who stands in front of it. As instructors we mourn (terrible as it sounds) first the loss of our metrics and then the loss of our faith in the system and finally once that rage is out of us, we mourn for our learner who looking into a system that no longer fits them feels they have no choice but to disengage.

It’s a grim picture and one I admit I’ve seen firsthand enacted every couple months with my own students. That said, and lest I leave this post on such a grim note of exile, I do think there’s some redeeming stuff that isn’t even that hard to put into practice. There’s probably even a theory about it floating in the sea of academia and it’s been peer reviewed extensively and someone is just now boarding a plane to go and present this new pearl of wisdom to the grateful masses. Basically, I think with communication in an online space (and by virtue of communication, presence) the key is….just do it. Do it in mediocre ways, do it in short and messy sentences, do it using imperfect grammar and janky sentence structure, because in doing so you become a real, vulnerable, messy human too. In doing so you show that your life too is messy and unpredictable. In opening up to our students, we prompt them to open up to us — we establish presence.

With my students we’ve recently begun a weekly club where they can share work and share inspiration and just connect together. I agonized over actually beginning the initiative not because I didn’t think it was a good idea but because as I knew per my administration I’d have to begin collecting metrics, justifying my methods and theory behind it. Having it under the departmental umbrella suddenly made it fair game to begin a somewhat Frankenstein transformation from free and easy get together to potential case study (for praise or as a cautionary note) to promote our program. And also legit I was afraid of all the technical issues involved because I’ve been filling my mind with so many good articles about what does and does not, in theory, work in online communication and technology-mediated spaces.

But in the end my own desire to create beat out my own desire to protect and I went for it but did so with a stony resolve to keep it as human-centered as possible. Turns out…it’s hard to be human and things haven’t been as easy as I’d hoped. That said, they’ve also not been as bad as I’d feared either and there is an odd grace in the fact that the more you are accessible, the more you are very clear and open up front about your own boundaries, the more it’s okay if you aren’t perfect. In design the thinking goes that the only way to make good work is to make lots and lots and lots of terrible work because the good projects don’t come at your bidding, they come in fits and starts — wrong turns and redeemed poor choices. More is more in design iteration and I think the same holds true for communication and presence in the online ed world.

May we have the courage to be open and embrace both the metrics and the human of it all.

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