Friday, October 25, 2013

Putting a Face on Online Learning

“It is common knowledge that a well-bred man should as far as possible have no face. That is to say, not so much be completely without one, but rather, should have a face and yet at the same time appear faceless. It should not stand out, just as a shirt made by a good tailor does not stand out. Needless to say, the face of a well-bred man should be exactly like that of other (well-bred) men and of course in no circumstances whatsoever should it alter. Naturally houses, trees, streets, sky and everything else in the world must satisfy the same conditions to have the honor of being known as respectable and well-bred.”
       -- Yevgeny Zamyatin, Islanders And, The Fisher Of Men

Given the above quote, I’m pleased to report that your online courses are populated by heaps of well-bred individuals.  Indeed, judging by the general pervasiveness of facelessness, your rosters must read like a regular roll call from Burke’s Peerage

What’s that you say?  This isn’t true?

As much as the anglophile in me might wish it otherwise, Zamyatin’s notions of decorum are, of course, at odds with the realities of anonymity and internet trolldom, and sadly, even our best online courses seldom resemble the staid intellectualism of a British tearoom.  Our students often appear faceless but seldom exhibit the haute mannerisms associated with being well-bred.  Thus, lacking any real hopes of emulating Downtown Abbey, I say we just go ahead and give our online students faces.

Really, it isn’t that hard.

You begin with a video.  All good instructors should model the lessons and attitudes they want their students to adopt, and so you should start the semester by immediately pulling back the wizard’s curtain.  "Here I am.  Your instructor.  A real person.  I have a voice and a face; I am human."  This sounds silly, but lacking an introduction video, you are perceived by your students only as some digital force of nature, expressed in text, putting forth commandments and judging your followers.  As tempting as this minor deification can be, I recommend you avoid it.  The image of Godhood is simply too difficult to maintain over a long semester.  Plus, there is always the tiny possibility of committing a mistake, and then the whole mythology might crumble down around you.  This can be very bad.

Once you have presented your face, it is time to solicit the same visual presence from your students.  In a physical classroom most everyone spends the first day eyeballing their compatriots, and it is only fair that we provide them with the same opportunity online.  Fortunately, the prevalence of modern technology makes video introductions easy to construct, and posting them quickly results in a far greater sense of community.  You also get to see them in their natural setting.  This can be fascinating

Now that you’ve met each member of your crew, it’s important that everyone create a face to take with them on the journey.  In many of my own courses, I have replaced the ugly, text-based enthusiasm-slayer known as the Discussion Board with Voicethread.  Voicethread allows your students to upload a picture of themselves, and that picture is present whenever they interact (through video, voice, or text) with their fellow students.  Providing ocular identity clues can completely change the nature of online interaction.  George Smith the name is rescued from the land of bland (and sometimes destructive) anonymity, and is reborn in your course as George Smith, the guy with black hair and a nice smile.  This Smith is statistically more likely to be kind and helpful, and he is easily recognized by his classmates.  “Oh, George, you’re always so funny,” they say, and, “Ah, George was the one talking about stem cells last week.  I wonder what he has to say about this.”  As human beings, we are evolutionarily primed to remember and appreciate human faces, and including them in online interactions greatly benefits the resulting dialogues.

Of course, students sometimes choose to represent themselves with avatars and thereby mask their faces.  While this can result in some protracted anonymity, I remind you of Oscar Wilde’s words: “A mask tells us more than a face.”  When a student represents herself as a castle, a sunset, or a dog, she is making a statement, and though we must be careful not to get too Jungian, this statement is open to interpretation.

Specific avatars can also result in a fair amount of mirth.  Last year an exceedingly bright student chose a picture of her six-month-old baby for her Voicethread profile.  Thus, throughout the semester we all enjoyed nuanced literary comments and in-depth discussions on symbolism originating from the picture of this little sage in a onesie.  Welcome to the 21st century.

Regardless of the chosen image, a visual identity is created and a face given to that student, a face capable of holding positive or negative associations, a face we can become comfortable with, like a neighbor, or even (gasp!), like a classmate in an actual classroom.

Beyond the intuitive benefits of all this, I offer one final anecdote of the change online faces can elicit.  At the beginning of each semester I have to clear each voicethread discussion of the previous semester's comments.  This is a labor intensive endeavor that requires me to click on each student’s face and then select a trashcan button.  When selected, the trashcan asks me, “Are you sure you want to delete this?”  When I first went about this task, it presented a surprising existential crisis.  “No,” I said, “I don’t want to erase Sally.  She’s come so far.  I loved her thoughts about Wide Sargasso Sea.”  This shows just how potent these images can be.  Seeing the student, she becomes more than just a name on a course roster.  She becomes an individual and her various thoughts, ideas, and emotions accrete to her given icon.  More than mere glyphs on a screen, she is a person, and whether well-bred or not, I’ve come to like that face.

No comments:

Post a Comment