Digital Presence and Online Teaching

Because we’ll all have to be teaching and learning online in the coming weeks, I’ve been thinking about the differences between online learning and in-class learning. My pedagogy is pretty simple in general, and I’ve taught online courses before, so I’m not very occupied with thoughts of that. I’m more curious about a philosophical issue: in what way is a student “present” in an online class, and how is that different than being physically (or “locally”) present?

Note: I have no idea where this is going or whether it will be interesting or practically relevant in any way.


Definitions are good. Old-fashioned definitions were made up of Genus and Specific Difference – the broad category in which a thing lies, and then the thing that distinguishes it from other things in that category. Even though we’re not talking about natural substances, there’s no harm in trying to do that here.

In a sense there’s no need to be very specific , since this isn’t really a very new problem (in fact, I’d bet people much smarter than I am have already written plenty about this, and I’d be happy to link them if anyone sends me sources). It’s close enough to the question of how someone is present to you when you’re talking to them on the phone. It’s even vaguely similar to how someone is present to you when you’re reading their letter, or how Shakespeare is present to us when we’re watching his plays, though the latter is a stretch. I don’t think that is exactly the right genus though, because there is a serious difference between reading a letter and speaking on the phone, which is the (relatively) immediate ability for the responder to respond. The “presence” in the case of a letter is only one-directional, which is untrue of phones and webcams. Of course, if you’re listening to a voicemail or watching a recorded video, then you’re doing something more like reading a letter.

So generically speaking, digital presence in a classroom is the same kind of thing as speaking on the phone. What can we say about that? Well, for one thing, it’s you on your end of the phone and not anyone else, so your identity is certainly intact in some way. You also have certain powers or abilities via phone and webcam, such as causing the speaker on the other end to emit noise by talking into the microphone on your end.

Backing Off a Bit

But I don’t think we can make too much of this. While it’s you on your end of the phone or webcam, what’s there on the other end isn’t you at all. We certainly aren’t God, who is present everywhere by his essence, power, and presence. At most we can say we have a kind of causal efficacy over a long distance (by means of the technology in question) to affect changes in the equipment on the receiving end of the transmission. You are the one causing the monitor and speaker on the other end to do what they do, but you are not there at the other end. Even ignoring the relatively short time delay (which isn’t so short on Facebook “Live” as I discovered last week), there is certainly a difference of distance, and being human beings with singular bodies, we cannot be in two places at once without the special and very weird grace of bi-location.

This leads to another problem. It’s possible, during conference calls or large Zoom “webinars” (ugh), to be causally efficacious in many places at once: you burp once into your mic and a dozen people all across the globe can hear it from their phones. Either we have learned somehow to be potentially omnipresent, or digital presence must be a very strange thing.

We are forced, I think, to make the initially obvious conclusion that digital presence isn’t really presence at all, except metaphorically. It’s not even close to the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, where Christ is present substantially even if not locally. Our substance can only be in one place, since our soul is the form of a body, and our bodies are non-glorified, singular, and therefore occupy a singular place.

So the kind of thing we’re talking about, broadly speaking (generically), is the ability, granted by technology, to semi-immediately cause effects in places other than our own.


That’s the genus. But what is it that makes webcams specifically different from old fashioned telephones?

The obvious difference is that rather than one power to cause effects in a different location, you have two. On the phone, your power of speech is all you have: you say a word, it’s transmitted through the phone line, it causes the speaker on the other end to make a noise, and that noise is heard by the person on the other end. It all fits neatly within the sense of hearing.

In the case of online classes or video conferencing, two senses are involved: hearing and sight. But what’s interesting is that this isn’t simply a doubling. The visual aspect in this case is very different from the audible one, since you don’t need to do anything in order to cause the monitor on the other end to project your image: you just have to be there. That isn’t the case for sound: if you want someone to hear you, you have to make a noise. If you want to be seen, you only need to exist. And have the lights on.

I’m not an expert in how the brain works, but it’s pretty clear that the difference between one sense and another isn’t linear. Just reading a text message, for example, leaves out a lot of context and meaning given through voice inflection, as illustrated in this hilarious (and NSFW) Key and Peele sketch. Adding an actual voice makes a big difference. Adding visuals adds even more – not just for “visual learning” but also for access to the other person’s facial expressions and body language, which I have a feeling are more informative than most people would guess. Otherwise being a good actor would be fairly easy.

If you want to be lame and try to quantify this, I think adding a second sense does more than double the information given and received. But whether it multiplies it by four or five or six seems like an unanswerable question, as well as a dumb one. I’d rather compare it to having two eyes instead of one: it’s not so much about increasing information as giving perspective that would be impossible otherwise.

Is Online Learning Better?

I was on Zoom earlier today with about 30 of my colleagues. There I was, staring into the last remaining webcam available at my local Staples (since webcams are nearly impossible to find now), looking at my monitor which was divided into little rectangles in which were the faces of my heroic comrades. Each of us could see the other in this way as through an iconostasis both revealing and hiding the reality it depicted.

What exactly is the difference between a setup like that and being physically in class? It’s easy to say “a lot,” or “there’s no comparison,” or “there’s no replacing the real thing,” and that might be true, but those are vagueries rather than analyses.

Many things balance out, for example. Sure, I couldn’t see what my digital friends were doing outside their rectangles, or what they were listening to (most of us were “muted” when we weren’t speaking), or whether they were really paying attention (I know I wasn’t). But that’s not much different from a classroom. I can see the tops of the heads of my students, but besides smaller seminar classes (which have a lot to say for themselves), rows of desks are increasingly obstructive to the person standing in front of them. Near the back of a classroom someone with longer hair could easily wear earbuds without a teacher noticing, and there is no angle at which the teacher can see what is on a student’s laptop screen.

An obvious rebuttal is to have a rule forbidding laptops and similar technology in the classroom, which is certainly a good idea in many cases. But it’s unenforceable in larger classes, where again the back rows are invisible to the instructor. It becomes nearly impossible when laptops are replaced with cell phones, which can be placed flat on the desk and gazed at lovingly while the student appears to be taking notes.

So we’re back to small seminar style courses where the instructor has direct, one-to-one eye contact with every student, and each student with every other. That’s just fine by me, but it’s not a model most schools can afford or logistically handle.

To find the truth of the matter we need to be willing to admit that digital presence might even be better in some ways. Introverted as I am, I was much more comfortable in my own room today than I ever have been in a classroom. I was actually able to see each of my colleagues more clearly and directly than the majority of students sitting behind the third row of “Classroom M.” The moderator of the discussion was easily able to see which of us wanted to speak and give us the floor, and all of us were able to hear the speaker without any need for him to raise his voice. I was able to walk over and get myself some tea without missing any of the discussion. I was able to type and take notes without making noise that could bother anyone around me. I had more desk space than any classroom desk I’ve ever seen. I had easy access to all my books and articles, pens and pencils (actually I don’t think I’ve used or seen a pencil in several years), and anything else I would need in the course of the seminar.

What’s Really Missing?

I’m obviously speaking one-sidedly, but you see my point. Online learning might have a lot to offer, especially now, at the end of all things. An important caveat about distraction, though, would be that in the case of my Zoom meeting this morning, everyone wanted to be there and was interested in the topic. Despite my hyperbole above, if a student wasn’t interested in class, it would be much easier for them to find distraction online than in class.

Even besides the easier possibility of distraction, isn’t there more to say in recommendation of in-class learning? I’d assume that college students are generally more interested in their classes than high schoolers are (at least that’s my experience), and that grad students even more so. I might even ask why we are forcing students to take classes they aren’t interested in in the first place, but that’s a rabbit hole I will resist.

So let’s put distraction aside (let’s not get distracted by distraction?). If there’s a difference between online learning and in-class learning, it has to be in something left out by the former. I defined digital presence in an online class as the ability to affect things in other locations visually and audibly. One obvious difference between this and in-class presence is the other three senses, but as a professor I make it a point to discourage my students from touching, smelling, or tasting one another, so I don’t think these senses have much to do with the learning process outside of culinary school.

What’s left is nothing but real estate’s mantra “location, location, location.” I’d like to finish this weird post by asking two questions: whether location makes a difference, and what difference location makes.

To answer the first question I’ll use the old logical technique of contradiction or argument ad absurdum. Let’s assume there isn’t a difference between digital and physical presence – that your actual location isn’t relevant to your learning at all. That would reduce learning to mere data-input. Learning would be something done not by the whole person, but by the brain aided by the senses of sight and hearing. That doesn’t sound totally implausible though: we digest food, play golf (?), and listen to music using certain parts of our bodies and not others. But still, it is we who do it, even if not all the parts of us are involved. Isn’t learning like that?

I posit that it is not, except in some accidental way. It is the whole person who learns, not some part or another, because learning is the quintessential human activity, or one of them. This is not an immediately easy thing to prove, but I can illustrate it by comparing learning to another quintessentially human thing: romantic love. Speaking on the phone, or via facetime, is not the same as being together (or so I hear). Even if all the other physical effects were sufficiently satisfied in various creative ways (about which I will not go into detail here), there would still be something missing. And that thing would be location, location, location.

Let’s say you buy the analogy between learning and loving and my illustration makes sense to you. What it is that location, physical presence, provides in the case of learning? The same thing that being at a concert provides that a recording cannot, or a hug can that a text message can’t, or a smile can that an emoji can’t: contact, connection, existence. Teacher and student aren’t computer and USB thumb-drive. They are friends. And yeah, friends can talk and keep in touch over text, facetime, and Twitter. But it’s best for them to be together.

I’m sure there’s plenty more to say about this, but for now that’s my vague answer to a weird question. In any case, for better or worse we’re stuck with digital presence for now, so let’s make the best of it.

One thought on “Digital Presence and Online Teaching

  1. I’m interested in your expanding on the idea of students taking classes they aren’t interested in…what are your thoughts on this?

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