No back row, no corridor: Metaphors for online teaching and learning

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Publication note

An earlier version of this was published in the Oxford Magazine No 422.  This post expands certain sections based on questions and feedback I received following the first publication of the piece. It is also available on Medium.

The state of digital dislocation

The current state of digital dislocation is forcing us to reevaluate what is the essence of teaching and learning. The “grammar of schooling” [1] has been taken away from us and we are forced to learn a new dialect by immersion with just a few phrasebooks, hastily pulled off the shelf, to guide us. Digital teaching is still teaching but it is teaching with an accent, one where we’re still trying to acquire enough fluency and idiomaticity to feel completely at home. When we add to it the culture shock of being in a new situation without any of the familiar cues, sights, sounds and smells of our native environment, it is not surprising that many people are feeling stressed and long for a swift return to “normal”. But it is also no surprise that many others are examining the current situation and finding the new land to be one of endless opportunity and thinking of establishing a permanent residence or at least buying a holiday home.

At one extreme, we are hearing voices calling online learning “clearly inferior,” lacking the essential personal contact that defines the University experience and asking whether the cost, expressed in fees, is too high. At the other pole, we hear “online teaching is clearly better,” doing away with all the distractions and deadweight of spaces, commutes and providing the focus so essential to learning. The same person can find themselves taking either position depending on the stage of culture shock they are living through at the moment. Both of these perspectives were reflected in an eloquent summary by Ray Williamson from the Oxford Student Union in a recent issue of the Oxford Magazine.[2] Here, I’d like to elaborate on what is at stake and look at ways of conceptualising the different perspectives.

Making sense of digital with affordance metaphors

I suggest that the two divergent views can best be reconciled when we contrast the affordances of the physical and virtual environments in which teaching and learning take place. By affordances I mean those features of the environment that present themselves to us for direct action and interaction and thus make the world around us meaningful and define what it means to live in the space we’re in. Affordance is a concept fundamental to design thinking and interaction and ignoring them is the most frequent cause of failure both in digital and physical products. [3]

The best way I found to bring the contrast between the physical and the virtual into focus are two metaphors that can be summarised as “No back row” and “No corridor”.

“No back row”

“No back row” expresses mostly the potential of the online experience to be positive for learning: the digital space is the great equaliser, no student is left hiding in the dark corner of the room, everybody’s contribution is coming from the front. This leads to higher engagement with the study material, and better learning. It is so powerful that the American online course provider 2U trademarked the slogan as part of their corporate philosophy [4]. Of course, just because it has the potential to be beneficial for learning, it doesn’t mean that we can just put the same course online and get its benefits. We have to design the online courses to take advantage of this. Nor should we be mislead by the visual metaphor of the Zoom call that 2U use on their corporate page. This applies to an entirely forum-based course, as well. The very fact that they have to engage with the content may put additional demands and stresses on students that will require support. This is in addition to the issues that are captured by the ‘no corridor’ metaphor.

“No corridor”

“No corridor” reflects the largely negative aspects of the virtual when contrasted with face to face. It reflects the lack of physical and social space connecting the learning situations. There are no natural landmarks to guide us, no flow of the crowd to follow. Everything has to be scheduled, bookmarked or emailed. There is little serendipity and no feeling of just “being there”. This makes it easy for a student to disappear and find themselves in “no row” at all. The physical space is doing a lot of work that is beyond the conscious notice of educators and programme administrators and allows them to be less specific in their instructions and leave things to ‘work themselves’ out without realising it. Their planning may be meticulous and painstaking but it is always framed by what the space affords them when it is filled with students, signs, and other signals that may feel almost subliminal. This can be easily seen when we compare the instructions students receive before arrival (what to bring, where to come, what to expect) and when they arrive which may be as little as a time table followed by ad-hoc announcements. And this comparison may gives clues to some aspects of mitigating the downsides of ‘no corridor’.

Affordances of the physical vs virtual

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Photo by Lucrezia Carnelos on Unsplash

Luckily, we can mitigate the downsides of the virtual and amplify its benefits, if we pay careful attention to the affordances of the physical. There are successful ways of making up for the lack of the corridor’s hidden contribution to the learning process but we must avoid taking the normal environment in which learning takes place for granted. We rightly focus on personal relationships as essential to learning but as we saw above it is easy to underestimate the power of the spaces in which they are situated.

In the physical space, it is much easier to just follow the flow of the environment and learn, without realising it, by reflecting others’ reactions to it. There are spaces laid out so obviously that our use of them passes completely beneath any level of conscious notice. We do not need to deliberate on how to open doors, sit facing the speaker, not to sit in a seat already occupied. And where there are issues (locked doors, missing markers, drilling outside the window), we have established scripts for coping and frames for interpreting them.

None of these features are present in the virtual environment. Every action (at least initially), requires the effort of directed attention. We need to learn the “interfaces” of Zoom, establish routines of where to ‘find the link to join’, keep track of bookmarks for the learning materials, and manage actual time for virtual events and assignment deadlines. All of this virtual effort is taking place in an actual physical environment where we are the only person engaging in the activity. What’s worse, when we study or teach virtually, we do not appear to the world around us any different from when we idly browse the web or are binge-watching a TV show. We then have to negotiate with that environment and people in it in ways that travelling to ‘school’ or the ‘library’ does for us without any words having to be exchanged other than ‘I’m going to class’.

It’s no wonder many are finding themselves more stressed, tired and downright disoriented. But equally, to no one’s surprise, there are many who are thriving without the extra burden of the physical space which they may have found too overwhelming, full of distractions and uncertainties. We know that not all students cherish the demands of the physical spaces into which attending a university thrusts them; those who only feel comfortable huddled in the back row or for whom passage through the corridor is an exercise fraught with anxiety. Universities have ample built-in support structures and processes (albeit imperfect) for the latter but none for the former.

For a successful online learning experience

Yet, we know that it is possible to build a sense of “being there” in fully virtual environments and it is also possible to establish durable personal support relationships. This was possible even before the rise of Zoom or Teams as the success of Open University can attest but now it is even more within reach. Perhaps the most powerful indications of this are coming from the successes of telemedicine and even online psychotherapy. Many patients are finding that their one-on-one experience with a therapist is enhanced without the stressful overhead of travel, sitting in waiting rooms, walking through crowds, etc. [6]

Telemedicine also shows the way when we think about the heterogeneity of needs and inclinations. It is clearly not always appropriate to conduct therapeutic interventions over Skype but it is sufficient or even superior in more instances than may have been thought before the current situation made them a necessity. Do we think that education is radically different, here?

What does a University have to do to make the most of the benefits of ‘no back row’ and minimise the downsides of ‘no corridor’? What does the individual educator? The solutions are surprisingly simple and non-technical. Above all, we need to realise how much we can leave unsaid because the physical environment says it for us and then make it explicit in the virtual setting. We need to communicate more clearly and more frequently. We need to design the virtual learning spaces to minimize unnecessary cognitive load, structure information better, pay attention to navigation and consistency. We need to constantly fine-tune the balance between information overload and not enough information. We need to build structures that support the students who are struggling with the technological as well as personal aspects of learning.

New roles for the relationship business

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

But ultimately and most importantly, we need to realise that educational institutions are not in the information business, they are in the relationship business (to borrow a metaphor from the media critic Jeff Jarvis [5]). It is easy to deploy an army of learning technologists and media production specialists, and think we’ve done virtual teaching justice. But online teaching requires other support roles and activities than just those leading to the deployment of “tech”.

There need to be roles whose main job it is to make sure students are opening the right virtual doors and sitting facing the right way in the virtual learning spaces. There need to be roles that pay attention to the real physical spaces and social situations on the other side of the Zoom call. When students are on campus, so much of this is done for us by the affordances of the space built up over centuries and so ingrained into our conceptual and perceptual systems that interacting with them feels to be a matter of instinct.

When all we have is emails, forum posts, webcams and the screen, we need to put in additional work to make up for this. Over time, it will come to seem as natural as what we have now but not without the initial effort. For instance, it is not anyone’s job to explicitly make sure students socialise with others in the physical environment. We don’t ask students if they “went out for a drink” with others when they’re on campus, but perhaps, it needs to be somebody’s job in the virtual situation. [7]

Sources of learning

Luckily, we have ample models of successful practice to draw on. The Open University is one such, Oxford’s own Continuing Education department is another. Private online education providers such as GetSmarter / 2U, who provided the first part of the metaphor, are others.

As far back as 2009 before Zoom or video conferencing, I taught a module on language and education in a physical setting followed a year later by a similar module in a fully online course for teachers. I was struck, when reading the final essays, how much more the online students seem to have engaged with the subject.

In the physical space, I had a feeling of engagement during my seminars with the students. But the ‘feedback’ I was getting from them hid the relative shallowness and unevenness of their engagement. I never saw the online students in person, so I had to design the course to get this feedback in other ways and I could easily see where all individual students were and guide them back in the right direction if they seemed to be floundering. It was more work for me and them but the learning gains were there to see.

The lessons of this anecdote are supported by research evidence and by experiences of educators the world over [8]. We do not need to provide inferior experiences to students just because they are not in the same room as us.

Eventually the world of university teaching and learning will return to “normal” but we should be mindful that culture shock happens on returning home, as well.[9] We can take advantage of what we learned during this forced sojourn in digital lands to develop a more robust bi-cultural approach to teaching by blending the best of both worlds.

Footnotes

[1] Tyack, D.B. and Cuban, L., 1995. Tinkering toward utopia: a century of public school reform. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass ; London.

[2] Williams, R. 2020. “Students and remote learning” Oxford Magazine, 421, Trinity.

[3] Norman, D.A., 2013. The design of everyday things. Basic books, New York, N.Y.

[4] No Back Row | 2U [WWW Document], n.d. URL https://cdn2.2u.com/about/no-back-row/ (accessed 6.8.20).

[5] Jarvis, J., 2012. What the media can learn from Facebook. The Guardian, 15 February 2012, sec. Media Network. https://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2012/feb/15/what-media-learn-facebook.

[6] These two recent pieces summarise the pros and cons of mental and physical health interventions and point to relevant research.

Joyce, N., 2020. Online therapy having its moment, bringing insights on how to expand mental health services going forward [WWW Document]. The Conversation. URL http://theconversation.com/online-therapy-having-its-moment-bringing-insights-on-how-to-expand-mental-health-services-going-forward-136374 (accessed 6.8.20).

Novella, S. 2020. It’s Time for Telehealth. NeuroLogica Blog. URL https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/its-time-for-telehealth/ (accessed 6.8.20).

[7] Redmond, P., Heffernan, A., Abawi, L., Brown, A., Henderson, R., 2018. An Online Engagement Framework for Higher Education. Online Learning 22. https://doi.org/10.24059/olj.v22i1.1175

[8] The following systematic reviews show that online higher education is at least as effective as offline education when it comes to learning outcomes.

Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., Jones, K., 2009. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, US Department of Education. US Department of Education.

Nguyen, T., 2015. The Effectiveness of Online Learning: Beyond No Significant Difference and Future Horizons 11, 11.

Pei, L., Wu, H., 2019. Does online learning work better than offline learning in undergraduate medical education? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Med Educ Online 24. https://doi.org/10.1080/10872981.2019.1666538

[9] Gaw, K.F., 2000. Reverse culture shock in students returning from overseas. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 24, 83–104. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0147-1767(99)00024-3