a rhino

What does the premium on “presence” actually cost?

Joe Biden’s recent pronouncement on “broadband is infrastructure” amplifies the message that our lives are connected in significant ways in digital systems. And, in a report, the United Nations Human Rights Council said:

Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states. 

When we look at the rhetoric about the internet it is unsurprising that there is an emerging tacit assumption that good education in the 21st century means being almost always connected.

In education, the global pandemic emergency accelerated our understanding about using technology and connectivity to deliver teaching. But we came to this point from a place where we put a premium on presence. “We can not teach in physically present ways! I guess we’ll have to do it online”.

Because of this premium on presence from pre-pandemic practice, practices in online places have also put a premium on synchronous presence. This manifests in many ways; online lectures is the most obvious, where a lecture that was on campus is directly transferred to a Zoom or Teams room, where “cameras on” is sometimes mandated. But that need for presence is also felt in many other ways too, for example online proctoring, or having exams sat simultaneously. The overriding, maybe unconscious, assumption is that  teaching and learning is better when we are in person, whether that is physically or online.

Tech and Edtech companies emphasize this too, many systems require, or rely on connections to  the cloud, monetization through analytics means that “free” systems need a connection, or in education, students need to be connected, so they can be monitored or measured. And if tech is always connected, then the content and functions tend to be designed to work best on that “connection”. Being plugged in is becoming the assumed norm whether it’s actual practice or not.

Where is the evidence that this kind of never-unplugged presence is better? And how can we in good faith make a general overarching statement like that and apply it to all learning and teaching in all situations?

What if accessing learning and teaching asynchronously led to better outcomes for some students? There are people already designing for both synchronous and asynchronous approaches, letting students discover and decide what works for them. We need to think about what the barriers are to the wider dissemination of those approaches; how can we make things easier for staff to have multiple approaches to teaching the same content, and for students to engage with it.

The current emergency has made visible the needs of students and staff for options other than “in the building” or “always online” – they are now part of our practice and are going to continue to exist. How can we make arguments for keeping the flexibility and access that our emergency choices forced us to make possible, especially when in reality those choices would have been better for some students anyway?

I’m still thinking about these things, both here and of course on Twitter. So thanks Mark Childs, David Cormier, Donna Lanclos, Jennie Blake, Rachelle O’Brien, Simon Thomson.

What I’m trying to think about next with regard to this discussion… 

  • What does embodiment and presence mean in synchronous and asynchronous modes? And which promotes the greater diversity of staff and students?
  • What are the benefits to different approaches?
  • When does a community of inquiry become a community of inequity? (thanks Mark).


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