I was recently reading a post in the excellent blog The Tempered Radical, which was quoting another teacher as saying other teachers “…believe that you can’t truly know someone unless you have face-to-face opportunities to get to know them.” The post questioned that belief, and wondered if that was primarily because online relationships were generally outside of the experience of many teachers and therefore they might just not understand.This isn’t the first time I’ve read this perspective in blogs.
I, though, have a different point-of view.
I’m a firm believer that technology is used best as a tool to deepen and develop face-to-face relationships. That perspective guides much of my use of technology in school – incentives in our home computer project encourage multiple family members to use the computer at the same time to read “talking ” books and discuss them afterwards; students from different ethnic groups in our after-school ESL Computer Lab regularly connect with each other to share their favorite activities and have friendly competitions in online games like “Verb Tense Basketball,” and groups of students work together to successfully finish online video games.
In addition, students create online games, make online comments about them, and, most importantly, discuss together what they’ve done in the following class discussions. Students also leave online comments on other examples of work, including on blogs and online journals. A key part of that is using sentence “stems” in their writing to model good communication – “I like _________ because_____________”; “I wonder why you ____________. Can you tell me more?”; “What do you mean by __________?” These phrases help prepare and reinforce the content and tone of subsequent face-to-face class conversations. And many, if not most, of the projects students create are done in small groups, not individually.
That’s not to say I don’t also try to create opportunities for students to develop online relationships, too. This semester my Government class will be working on joint projects with a class in Brazil to compare our respective governments and how people in each of our country go about organizing for social change. I believe students in both classes will gain from the experience. But, no, I don’t believe that my students will be developing “real” relationships with their Brazilian counterparts.
In fact, I believe that one of the things I want my students to learn is that virtual online relationships are not, in fact, anywhere near as substantial as the ones they can develop and deepen with the people in their lives now. Focusing on these kinds of relationships are the ones where, I believe, they will gain the most emotional support, learn the most important life lessons, and identify the most opportunities in the future. I don’t want them to get as seduced as they may be by the lure of virtual relationships where, among other things, they miss out on the 65% to 98% of non-verbal language that many researchers say are the most important aspects of communication. And, yes, I know about webcams. Even there, however, I know from my own experience in the classroom and out that there isn’t much that can compare to a genuine gentle touch on the shoulder or a hug.
My students do hundreds of face-to-face “individual meetings” each year with peers, family members and neighbors to learn about their lives, their visions for their future, and the problems that affect their families and neighborhoods. This “methodology,” which I learned during my nineteen years as a community organizer, helps them build a real connection with others that results in collective action to help solve those problems – whether it is bringing job training agencies to their neighborhood, meeting with Congresspeople about immigration issues, or developing bilingual education health education materials. That is certainly a different type of relationship than having people they’ve never met leave comments online about their projects.
I want to emphasize, though, that I don’t believe it’s an either/or situation. Both face-to-face and online relationships have their roles in education. I just think we teachers need to be “real” about “real” relationships.