Present at a distance and distant when present…

The past two and a half years have been punctuated with moments in which I have become acutely aware of being both the object of my research – the learner; and the subject of the enterprise of – learning. So it comes as no surprise that the 2014 Networked Learning Conference provided me with pause for thought. In this post I will reflect on the experience of learning with and from the same people: at a distance and in person.

Before the conference began the organisers hosted a number of online ‘Hot Seats’. More often than not I was an active but silent participant. I did engage and if learning is measured by change in the learner – I did learn. This learning was unseen, happening at a distance in silent asynchronous dialogue with people unknown. And it was not until I was invited to contribute something of myself, in the form of a sketch detailing my learning practice that I was visibly drawn into the online dialogue. I am interested in the places of learning and how they shape the activity of learning and this was an invitation to turn the mirror on myself. It was also something I could talk ‘knowledgably’ about in a legitimate academic space in a way that, somewhat inadvertently, made me knowable.

I followed the contributions of others to this thread with interest and – in an odd sort of way I came to know those with whom I ‘chatted’. Many of the themes of our asynchronous dialogue remain delightfully unresolved in my mind and I continue to mull over them at odd intervals.

Today, however, I’d like to reflect on the experience of being physically co-present and yet mentally distant. This is in no way intended as a criticism – it is merely an observation. For dialogues are two sided and I was at liberty to initiate conversation – and yet I didn’t?

It was not until the conclusion of the conference that I returned to the thread and rereading it I noticed the quality of the exchange. I think we often equate physical proximity with higher degrees of engagement. Consciously or unconsciously we track eye contact, gestures and posture looking for clues about when to speak, how to speak and how are we are being received. All of these traces are apparently absent in asynchronous dialogue and yet I had had the opportunity to speak in person with these very same people. The ones with whom I had shared a lively, engaging and often personal dialogue – and, in the most part, I didn’t?

I think this is interesting on at least two levels. First, there was something about the nature of that task that is worth exploring; and second, our characterisation of dialogue at a distance, as being distant – some how impoverished – needs revision.

I’ve hinted at why I was initially drawn in. It was something that interested me and I felt I could speak with both authenticity and personal authority. It invited personal reflection on changes in practice in a world in flux. It gave me an opportunity to be known at a distance. Philippa Sheail, spoke about a project in which a Google map was used to encourage geographically distant participants in an online course to introduce themselves. They were not asked to place a marker that pined them, immutable and immobile, to their official places of residence. Rather, they were invited to populate the map with short, multi sensorial traces of their lived experiences of the places that were important to them. Examples included a note marking a favorite run, complete with the ability to visually travel this path at a distance, using ‘street view’. A second contained two images and an audio file: the first a desk complete with books, papers and a black cat, the second a view from the window alongside the desk and the audio file carried with it the sounds of the black cat purring.

So I have something to say about why I think these types of task are valuable in bridging distance. As to our notions about presence at a distance, and distance when present – well, I will have to think about that a bit more. Suffice to say – they are not as fixed as we may have once thought?

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