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Magic happens in the classroom. When teachers profess and students listen, something inexplicable takes place: people grow. But this is no trick. What teachers and students do in the classroom is a carefully refined process of motivating attention, harnessing information and applying skill. It is conscious and practiced. It has been evolving for centuries. It is expected.

Much of the wariness directed at online teaching and learning -- both “massive” and traditional -- is rooted in anxiety about what education means in the absence of the expectations of presence.

The replacement of the “relational teacher with a disembodied machine,” as Laura Harrison and Peter Mather have put it, is one acute expression of a much broader and more durable crisis -- whether to define higher education through narratives of nostalgia or through narratives of progress.

In one narrative, the teacher is an agent of spontaneity and discovery. In another, the machine heralds automation and standardization. As technological integration in educational spaces increases, the presence, and by extension the authority, of the teacher decreases. So the story goes.

This line of argument suffers from what I call the digital presence fallacy, a presumption that digital spaces cannot accommodate meaningful presence or foster intimate learning encounters simply by virtue of the fact that they are not physical.

We must evolve past this fallacy. It is time that educators, administrators and technologists think more deeply -- and more creatively -- about what presence means for higher education in the digital age, and how that presence is designed, built and communicated in educational environments. The physical presence of teachers and students in classrooms cannot continue to claim exclusive purchase on the creation of lasting and meaningful learning experiences.

In the narratives of nostalgia, physical presence is positioned as the catalyst for the entire enterprise of higher learning. In Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education, Mark Edmundson presents the encounter between engaged and curious students and invested (and available) faculty in this way: “When you have that kind of conversation, one on one, you begin, however modestly, to create a university.”

In this formulation, the meaningful grounds of learning in a university are transmitted -- or, less technologically speaking, grown -- through the idiosyncrasies of physical interpersonal communication. Layers of mediation -- like physical distance, learning management systems, etc. -- sever those connections or prevent them from forming in the first place.

But this form of presence remains a privileged experience, an unachievable idealization for the millions of American undergraduates who are commuter students, who work part- or full-time during school, who have family commitments at home, or who otherwise cannot rely on opportunities to build a “bond of good feeling” (as Edmundson puts it) with the lecturer standing at a distant podium.

Not the Same

It is true that many existing and emergent digital technologies -- from simple video chats to sophisticated virtual reality applications -- can approximate the embodied interactions between teacher and student. But, as many would likely say, it’s just not the same.

The most important claim of this essay is that we should not want it to be the same. We should be thinking beyond and beneath the expressions of presence to which we have become accustomed.

Online courses generate presence in a number of ways: recorded video lectures and video chats, virtual office hours, emails, assignment feedback, discussion forum posts, etc. But more importantly, online teachers can generate their presence indirectly by actively shaping the overall texture of a learning environment, the aggregate feeling of instructional materials and approaches, assignments and assessments, and opportunities for student engagement.

Through this texture we might imagine a teacher distributed yet no less present, unbundled and yet pervasive. Understanding online presence as texture empowers faculty to make their online courses their own, no matter the hosting platform or delivery method.

That an LMS will never replicate the experience of the physical classroom is no reason to throw out the whole endeavor of online learning. Developing and communicating more nuanced parameters for presence will define the next wave of online teaching and learning.

As Michelle Miller writes in Minds Online, “What technology allows us to do is amplify and expand the repertoire of techniques that effective teachers use to elicit the attention, effort and engagement that are the basis of learning.” Miller’s sense of amplification is important -- emerging educational technologies are tools to be wielded, and their effects are not predetermined. “The tools we use can and do change us,” Miller writes, “but when we use these tools mindfully, we can remain in control of those changes, shaping them to benefit our students.”

Privileging only physical presence risks insulating the work of teaching from the real conflicts surrounding the rapid expansion and development of online learning, divesting faculty and instructional support staff of their role in shaping the experience current and future students will have in their online courses and degree programs.

The story of online learning so far has too often been disruption, suspicion and distance (both literal and metaphorical). But the reality of online teaching is -- and must continue to be -- passion, experimentation and exploration. It’s time we changed the narrative.

Works Cited
Edmundson, Mark. Why Teach? In Defense of a Real Education. Bloomsbury, 2014.

Harrison, Laura and Peter Mather. Alternative Solutions to Higher Education’s Challenges: An Appreciative Approach to Reform. Routledge, 2015.

Miller, Michelle. Minds Online: Teaching Effectively With Technology. Harvard University Press, 2016.

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