Face-To-Face And Online Relationships

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.

7 thoughts on “Face-To-Face And Online Relationships

  1. Hey Larry,

    Great post that pushed my thinking. I especially like your argument that focusing on face-to-face relationships matters because those are the relationships that they are most likely to draw emotional satisfaction from their lives.

    What I’m still struggling with is how kids feel about online relationships….Now we know how you feel and how I feel, but we haven’t heard from anyone under the age of 18!

    I really wonder if they’d have a different perspective about how valuable virtual relationships are only because they’ve grown up in a completely different age as we have.

    Enjoying the conversation,

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  3. Bill,

    I appreciate your thoughtful response and participation in this discussion that’s pushing my thinking, too.

    You’re certainly right that we need to find out what our students think. In fact, it would also be interesting to learn what differences in opinion there might be even between the 25% — 35% of students who have Internet access at home and the rest who do not at an urban high school like where I teach (I’m assuming those percentages might be similar to urban schools across the country, but might be wrong).

    I suspect that a good number with Internet access might very well speak much more positively about the value of their online relationships.

    My thoughts on the role of the teacher would not change if that was the case, though. I’d still say one of the lessons we would need to help our students learn is that, just as I apply the saying to technology, “online relationships have a place, and they have to also be kept in their place.”

    I think that our students have opinions about many things. Our challenge is help them, through modeling, engagement, group work, and accessing prior knowledge, move those “opinions” to “informed judgment.”


  4. The strange thing is Larry, I think of a bunch of examples is support of both situations. Maybe both types of relationships have successful examples, and unsuccessful ones, and maybe the successful ones can teach us about ourselves, and our society. I’m thinking I can’t do justice to this in a comment, and I’ll have to write a post.

    Always you are “making me” write!

  5. Larry – I think a great example of this is when they hook up families that are separated using any kind of video link … for example soldiers in Iraq with their families back home. Its a special experience in that unlike audio only, family members can observe changes in appearance … longer hair, beards, clothing, growth in children etc. – and you can tell by the smiles and tears that it is highly impactful (I don’t think that is a real word : ) ).
    I’ve had the experience of helping connect a mom and her 3 year old getting treatment for cancer 300 miles from here with dad and siblings via video-Skype. I’d never met this mom and when my ugly mug appeared on the screen and the realization that the next day she would be able to connect in this fashion with the rest of her family the tears started to flow… and when her bald 3 year old had the headphones placed on him and I talked to him and got him to wave at me she lost it completely along with the nurses in the room … this is powerful stuff!

    However, I don’t believe for a second that those families wouldn’t rather be together.

    So it’s an improvement over text, or even just audio, but nothing beats being there.

    Having said that I think it has implications for teaching and learning we have only just begun to realize. There are even ways now to not only see and talk to others, but share a document (Word doc. or drawing application for example) and edit that document from multiple locations at once … and one of the things that makes this really exciting for educators is that it is usually FREE!

    Nice post!

  6. Brian,

    I appreciate the excellent points you’ve made in your comment.

    I’m in complete agreement that the Internet provides great opportunities — via text, video, and audio — for people to stay in closer touch with family members and friends with whom they have already developed close and longterm face-to-face relationships, as your touching story suggests.

    And I’m with you on feeling excited about the new free applications that allow users to work on projects together in real-time. I’m planning to have my students try some of them with the Brazilian class this coming semester.

    And, Alice, I’ll be looking forward to your post. I know you don’t have enough things to do, so I’m always trying to come up with more work for you!


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