Distance Learning vs. the Metaphysics of Presence

It is a serious question whether distance learning holds virtues that are ignored due to a prejudice that holds that physical presence of the instructor is necessary for learning. Clearly, in some cases, this is entirely untrue, and there may be an over-emphasis in some circles on the idea of physical presence as the metaphysical prerequisite to consider that learning is occurring. However, it is not clear that physical presence and phonocentrism —emphasis on the spoken word as the more effective mode of instruction— amount to the same “fixation”, when it comes to the question of how best to communicate knowledge.

Certainly, there is a different constellation of sensory, psychological and intellectual responses involved in the experience of an actual professor, standing in front of or seated around a table with a group of students, speaking and interacting with them, than is involved in strictly textual distance learning modules. The nature of experience is defined by what limits, or channels, it: face-to-face communication has certain limitations, while peer-to-peer online networks have others.

We are all familiar by now, I assume, with the communicative limitations of chat, sms and email, where plain text in an abstract, electronic setting, requiring a “send” command, and a line-by-line read-out and response, often out of sync with human intent, due to typing and reaction time, can lead to misunderstandings, taking offense, and miscues which all but undermine the possibility of real communication. The absence of physical cues about mood and reaction time is a real obstacle to intuitive electronic communication.

That, ultimately, is a question of 1) how intuitive is a given individual’s grasp of communication via such media, and 2) how well do two or more individuals understand each other, so as to be able to properly read the cues buried in the dense array of structural limitations that comprise these highly “efficient” modes of communication.

Whether we take a Derridean approach or not, we can acknowledge that there is more presence in a face-to-face human interaction in physical space than there is in the “encounter” with text in the abstract, and that quality of “absence” is intensified when our encounter with such text occurs at a time when the person who created or delivered that text is not also online.

So, is it easier to learn by way of face-to-face interactions with one’s professor? Or is distance learning superior, in some unique ways? I think the answer here is to some degree a matter of common sense: it depends on the specifics of the case. Professors can be conduits for illumination, if they are attuned to their students, eloquent, talented and hard-working, but they can also be an obstacle, if certain deep character flaws interfere, or if a student doesn’t do well with that professor’s style of instruction.

Distance learning is mainly a technological fix: it helps close geographical distances and open up available free time that might not otherwise be devoted to study or to instruction. The opening of The question of whether online distance learning can result in a more “intense” learning experience, a more “direct” transfer of knowledge —conceptual or experiential— or more intuitive communication, is a matter of individual cases.

If we start from these premises, we can begin to address the many interferences between the potential virtues of distance learning and the “metaphysics of presence”. If the experiential and perceptual aspects of face-to-face communication, which allow for learning through more intuitive channels to accompany textual learning, can be introduced into any online teaching scenario, the online instruction will be enhanced.

Is this a technological problem? Or a sociological one? Are people who gravitate toward distance learning actively seeking fundamentally different types of instruction than people who feel a personal need for an infusion of physical presence to accompany the introduction of new spaces of knowledge into their way of conceiving the world?

Jim Shimabukuro comments at Ideagora that:

When done right [...] online class discussions can be far more dynamic than F2F. There are many explanations. Here are some that stand out for me: Everyone . . .
(1) can participate — not just the most verbally aggressive,
(2) has the opportunity to carefully review and consider all the posts in the thread,
(3) has as much time as she/he needs to compose and revise thoughts before publishing them,
(4) is free to decide when and how often to participate,
(5) has the option to PM (send private messages to) individuals to expand the parameters of the discussion, and
(6) has the WWW at her fingertips to instantly access a world of info to inform her posts.

For the most part, online discussion fora do have these virtues, depending on the quality of their design and the permissiveness of the course structure. But to properly address the points of interference between the virtues of distance learning and the weight of the metaphysics of presence, it is vital to ask in every case if each of the six points listed above is always a virtue or if there are ways in which the physical demands of presence are conducive to sharper wits and more intuitive grasp of new complexities, in subtle but important ways.

All of these themes are interrelated in ways that determine how information flows between people, in any given case, and lead necessarily to the question of how the strictly online distance-learning scenario and the traditional physical classroom scenario might interact: for instance, many classroom-taught courses now include online components that go beyond email and professors’ websites, up to and including chat rooms, discussion groups and more.

There could also be crossover wherein the online classroom generates study groups that meet or which bring together competing ideas from competing disciplines, to enrich —and hopefully not confuse— both the teaching and learning experience. Some universities have online communities for certain courses, where students and faculty only meet for scheduled cultural events, discussions or interdisciplinary learning opportunities.

The new shape of web-based communication and networking allows for ever more effective collection, transfer and discussion of complex and far-reaching information. This means classroom-taught courses are ever more able to benefit from integration of web-based discussion mechanisms, and the convergence of physical and virtual space is the main issue, not whether face to face or peer to peer is superior.