Monday, July 4, 2022

Why is online learning seen as virtual?

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

I am extremely tired of the constant use of terms like virtual, remotecyber and distance when referring to online interaction and the dichotomy between those elements and terms like in real life and face-to-face when referring to interactions that happen in a physical space. This is a gross simplification and is often used to justify the return to normality that we see in the wake of the pandemic. At the recent EDEN2022 conference (see previous posts) there was a particularly interesting session by Lesley Gourlay of University College London called What does virtual learning mean? It was based on her recent article There Is No 'Virtual Learning': The Materiality of Digital Education that takes issue with the simplified terminology used to describe online interaction in education.

We also use the expression ‘meet in person’ to refer to physical and temporal co-presence, the idea of being ‘with’ other people also relies on this. The contrast, implicitly, is that digital engagement does not involve going to a particular place, and not doing something ‘in person’. This, I suggest, is indicative of two wider notions which dominate the way we think about educational technology. The first is that the digital exists outside of physical, material movement, placement or practices. The second is that it does not involve the body, the ‘person’, in the sense of doing something ‘in person’.
The idea that we are somehow different people when we are online is absurd but sadly persistent in educational discussions. Gourlay writes about this disembodiedness and how we often disregard the very real physical elements affecting how we communicate and collaborate online. The pandemic meant that both students and teachers had to adapt to new learning spaces, generally in a corner of an already cluttered home, with all the everyday activities, distractions and constraints (technical and connectivity issues, noisy surroundings etc.) that affect your ability to study and teach. Instead of simply insisting that for example students turn on their cameras or expecting them to respond to your questions out loud we need to develop a better awareness of the physical factors that affect the person you are talking to.
The notion of the ‘virtual’, in contrast, is replete with ideas of nonmateriality and disembodiment. In this paper I will present a challenge to the concept of ‘virtual learning’, arguing that digital engagement is always –and entirely– a set of material and embodied practices. Drawing on sociomaterial and posthuman perspectives, I will focus on the materiality of the digital, the embodied nature of engagement with devices, physical objects and space, and the performativity of talking to the screen. I conclude by arguing that, in a sense, there is no such thing as ‘virtual learning’, as all of the engagement and processes it consists of take place via sociomaterial and embodied practices.
She mentions the idea of the materiality of engagement and that all interaction takes place in a physical context and is subject to feelings of security, community and trust (or the lack of these).

A colleague then pointed me towards another fascinating article with some common themes about the illusion of virtuality, namely Sean Michael Morris, On Silence: Humanising Digital Pedagogy, Much of this is about how silence influences online encounters and that our traditional approach to education makes us afraid of silences, a theme I often return to in this blog. We need to see and hear the students online otherwise we suspect that they are not learning but in fact a lot of learning is silent and reflection takes time. We need to allow for silent reflection that considers the physical environments our students find themselves in. Simple question and response activities in synchronous meetings do not reflect this. Morris states that there is no such thing as virtual or online. It's all about human communication in real settings.
But ultimately, my best advice for teaching online is: Stop thinking about being online. No learning happens online. It all happens in a real place somewhere, where there are hands and fingers, feet and toes, a breathing person with a heartbeat whose eyes blink more slowly when they think hard. Put space in your teaching, because there is space in your relationship to students. The immediacy of the classroom is no longer an affordance, so take the most advantage you can of the more gentle continuity that distance provides.
So let's try to drop the talk of online interaction being somehow disembodied or unreal in some way and remember that it's real people trying to work, study, teach and socialise. There are certainly different affordances depending on the medium you use and both the online and the physical spaces have their strengths and weaknesses in terms of collaboration, inclusion, accessibility and social interaction. The key is to shift the focus from technology or architecture to human communication.


  1. THANK you for these interesting thoughts and articles! From one human to another... <3