Thought snippet: absence and presence

This mini-post is just to note that a lot of my thinking this week has revolved around “Being in a sense present while apparently absent” (Shelley and Urry, ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm, ibid, p.208)

The prompt for this strand of exploration was the story of ‘The Invisible Student’ and the comment that Rory made about online environments offering, on occasion, the chance to take a ‘holiday from the self’.

Ren? Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009
René Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928–29, Restored by Shimon D. Yanowitz, 2009

I started to think about what the last few weeks have been about is how to establish our presence and to feel present when, in essence, absent. Currently, we’re establishing our MSc selves in words, creating our presence in text; this reminds me of one of my favourite Beckett quotes, “I’m in words, made of words, others’ words” (Endgame). There’s the sense that words are not quite enough. Indeed, many of the issues highlighted in this week’s stories could be accredited to that Derridean gap between the sign and the signified. It will be interesting to see how our online selves and our community morphs as we develop our presence using other media – once we see others on Skype and engage through voice and video.

Slightly tangentially, this article was in The Guardian this week: maybe it’s harder than we think to escape from our ‘real’ selves when online.

Cartoon by Peter Steiner, published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993



Discussions and Debates

Many of the discussion threads about the ‘stories from the dark side’, have circled around conflict. Conflicts in expectations, conflicts in communication and internal conflicts. Codes of interaction and defining the rules of engagement have been explored and debated. Amongst many other things, we have examined notions of the online self, of the danger of the gap between word and intention, the role of the tutor and the rights and responsibilities of the student.

One of the most involved discussions came about as a response to ‘The Black Hole’ story and offered an insight into a particular reaction to Hamish’s WebQuest. Yoyu’s response to what I had perceived as a light-hearted task offers a salient learning point. We cannot predict learner responses nor rely on learner engagement. Even with much scaffolding, encouragement and reassurance, online students may still feel disengaged, alienated and discouraged.

The disconnect between Hamish’s intention and Yoyu’s response highlights many of the issues which are explored within transactional distance theory.

Definition of transactional distance from:

Interestingly, in Yoyu’s case, dialogue didn’t help, in fact it served to further alienate her from the task and from her peers.

snipFrom the online discussion:

It is interesting to consider if the medium of the discussion board – the medium which we are using and reflecting on this week – compounded the issues which Yoyu experienced. Yoyu herself questioned the use of the forum in her response to ‘The Black Hole’ story: the online discussion:

The key advantages of forums, as the Blackmon paper notes, include:

  1. Their asynschronous nature allows for flexibility in response times: this is particularly useful for our international cohort of students.
  2.  They allow time for responses to be considered and crafted.
  3. They enable students to participate in knowledge co-construction.

The key disadvantages include:

  1. Their asynschronous nature allows for flexibility in response times: this can cause anxiety. Yoyu highlighted that she felt ‘behind’ in the WebQuest as she came to it two or three days behind some others.
  2.  They allow time for responses to be considered and crafted: this can cause stage-fright – students may feel inhibited about contributing anything other than well-crafted responses in this public and permanent space.
  3. They enable students to participate in knowledge co-construction, thereby excluding those who don’t feel able to participate or co-create.

It’s interesting to consider if a synchronous communication stream, such as Skype, would have mitigated the issues which Yoyu encountered. If she had been been able to express her concerns immediately and receive instant feedback and reassurance, that may have lessened her feelings of exclusion. Hrastinski (2008) suggests that synchronous e-learning is a more effective communication tool for such ‘getting acquainted’:

Asynchronous versus synchronous
Hrastinski, ‘Asynchronous and Synchronous E-learning’,

Perhaps the transactional distance between Yoyu and us, her peers, could have been lessened if we had been working together at the same time: the temporal gaps in the slow form discussion forum certainly appear to have been spaces where Yoyu’s anxiety and uncertainty grew.

Our discussions around the stories from the dark side have, therefore, contained much consensus and some conflict. I have learned a lot from reflecting on the conflicts in the stories and from the conflicts in our own discussion forums. The stories and our reactions to them highlight that it is, indeed, important not to be ‘nice all the time’. ‘Disputational talk’ (Mercer, 2008 – thanks to Renée for the reference), debate and disagreement enhances our learning.


Moorings and Black Holes

We have, in the past week, been establishing our own community of IDEL students, our own network, our own web of connections, communications and knowledge. We have been developing moorings. We have been provided with/pointed towards multiple streams via which to do this: Lino, the Moodle forums, the WebQuest and Twitter. We have been engaged in developing ‘patterns of concentration that create zones of connectivity, centrality, and empowerment in some cases’ (Graham and Marvin, 2001, quoted in Shelly and Urry  ‘The New Mobilities Paradigm’, Environment and Planning A 2006, volume 38, p.210).


This is my first experience of a fully online course and the experience  of connecting only virtually has been stimulating and curious. I’m not sure, however, that ’empowerment’ is accurate at this stage. I am more anxious, circumspect and reflective about what I write than about what I would say. That is, perhaps, inevitable. As Mary noted in her reflections on ‘The Black Hole’ story, discussion forums are public and permanent spaces and it is this permanence which can, for me, induce inhibitions. The lack of paralinguistic signals is also difficult; emoticons just don’t fill that gap ;-). At the heart of many of these concerns is, I think, the notion of what ‘self’ I’m creating and presenting and how that ‘fits’ within the wider community of users. How can I be ‘in a sense present while apparently absent’? (Shelly and Urry, ibid, p. 207). Additionally, when it comes to the ideas I’m presenting, I fear that this is the case:


From Information is Beautiful – David McCandless

This has been a salient learning point for me and one which I must bear in mind as I encourage the network of teachers I work with to interact on the various forums which are available to them. Many of them, too, will be nervous about contributing and being empathetic to this and considering ways in which I might support and encourage is vital. Lino is an ideal ice-breaking medium and a WebQuest will provide focus for the discussion and for collaboration and community-building.

However, I cannot abstract from my subjective response to this medium to all learners’ responses: it’s not all negative, of course. As Stig points out, one of the many benefits of engaging via discussion forums is that we become more reflective, taking our time in responding and returning to and reconsidering points that we wish to make. Some learners will find the slow, asynchronous nature of such forums reassuring: they can construct and draft before contributing.

The ‘Black Hole’, the first story I’ve focused on in detail on the forum this week, threw up many questions connected to community and self. Discussions around this story moved to explorations about how we interact in spaces and how interactions can be moderated, guided and enhanced. Given that many of us are, or have been, teachers, the discussion quickly moved to assessment and whether assessment would enhance or diminish effective discussion. Threads also hovered around the notion of what is ‘authentic’ and whether assessment would mean that discussions would become less ‘real’ and would become parallel grandstanding threads. (As an aside, concerns and worries about the calibre of contribution are intensified within this assessed forum. I must acknowledge what Rory helpfully defined as a form of stage-fright when it comes to constructing blog posts. I’m sure that this will lessen with time.)

Additionally, the story also highlighted the human ‘will to connection’ (Simmel, 1997, p.171, quoted in Shelly and Urry, ibid, p.215). The community of learners, without direction, followed their will to connect and formed a hub around their shared love of cats. As Simmel highlights, people are attracted to each other simply for ‘free-playing sociability’ and, without guidance, moderation and intervention, online forums can become unfocused and, to quote Joanne, ‘cliquey’.

In our IDEL community, we have, so far, reached broad agreement on the following principles which could mitigate some of the issues outlined in ‘The Black Hole:

  1. Tutor presence is key. They help to set the tone, to ‘model’ appropriate interaction and they can guide, encourage, moderate and help to structure discussion. A tutor’s presence shifts the context of the discussion from peer-to-peer and ensures that the community is more explicitly defined as a learning community.
  2. Guidance and ‘rules of engagement need to be established.
  3. Forums should have an explicit purpose.
  4. Multiple streams of communication, including those which facilitate more informal socialising, should be available.

As digital technology use is, as Shirky notes, a ‘hybrid of tool and community’ (Shirky, 2008, p.136), we must, when designing online courses/content, be attuned to:

  1. what tools should be used when and for what purpose;
  2. how communities are established and created within online environments.

We need to facilitate positive and meaningful communication and support the construction of healthy learning communities. We have to become builders of bridges, as the ‘achievement of connection reaches its zenith with a bridge that connects two places; it ‘symbolizes the extension of our volitional sphere over space.’ (Simmel, 1997, p.171, quoted in Shelly and Urry, ibid, p.215).

bridge header