Here and now

This week at Umeå University in Northern Sweden, I was taken to see a class being taught by videoconference.  I’m familiar with this way of working; all the students seemed engaged and happy, and the teacher was relaxed and obviously very experienced. The room was a good size, and the class was discussing critical thinking. So far, so routine.

But there’s something about the strange warping of distance and time that occurs when you can see someone sitting in a room on the other side of the country or the world, and you know that they’ve organised themselves to be there when you are.  It’s not that different from the small jolt of simultaneity that happens when you catch someone on skype or, 15 years ago, when I taught out in the wilds of IRC.

What moves people about co-presence in time is just that: presence.  The other person is there, awake, breathing, thinking, doing stuff, responding, exactly when you are.  This is the here-and-now of being human at all that somehow can survive without co-location, and it can even survive when the other person can’t be seen or heard, but simply writes to you when you are sitting there waiting to hear from them.

So I think the UCLA professor Margaret Soltan has quoted at University Diaries, putting the boot into videoconferencing as a failed version of authentic or skilled human communication, is wide of the mark. For this professor, videoconferencing comes second best to the “here and now presence of a lecture, properly delivered, by a real person standing in front of them.”

This has brought back a memory I had buried with a big shovel. When I first began teaching I was asked to complete a compulsory university teaching training course.  Because I was already teaching online, I was curious to know if this would be covered, and I was told that this wouldn’t happen because “real teaching is something that happens using all of your senses.”  Stop and think about this for a moment.  All of our senses? I don’t think so.  In fact, the senses that are blocked by videoconferencing don’t necessarily have a place in the classroom either.

Let’s be clear: if I start licking my students, something has really gone awry.

So the sensory dimension of teaching that is really at issue here is the combination of sight and hearing.  And although there are many very skilled teachers who aren’t in a position to rely on either of these full-strength, I can certainly say that I’ve used both in videoconferencing. That’s the point: I can see the people at the other end, and I can hear them.  They can see and hear me.

What seems to go wrong has a bit more to do with screen and camera position, shot and framing.  I’ve taught in rooms where it has been difficult to move the camera to show the students at other locations who’s in the room with me, and where the students in the room with me additionally have to look over their shoulders to see who is somewhere else.  I’m also aware that students at other locations are sometimes shy about creating close-up pre-set shots for asking and answering questions, and we can certainly do more to make this easier for them. But in my experience most of these problems can be fixed, and university technical staff committed to videoconferencing and lecture capture are really concerned to try to adjust everything they can to ensure that this isn’t a second-best way of being taught.

We have a way to go, I think, but the problem isn’t the technology, it’s simply that we’re still learning how to use it well. And this is worth doing because there are many, many reasons why some students need to be located elsewhere, and if we can use technology well to support their participation in higher education, surely we should do so.

So, to end on an upbeat note: the other privilege I’ve had while here is being able to observe thoughtful, simple but well developed projects in Second Life that academics at Umeå University are using to support remotely located Sami language learners, and to enable Sami students to engage with indigenous students in other national contexts, including right across the world to Canada.

Real people, using real social skills, in real time: the best of what teaching can be.

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