From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

April 20, 1999*: I'm all dressed for the occasion

Among other tasks I'm supposed to attend to, I'm a virtual teacher. Yes, in my more depressed moments I know that I used to think of myself as that sort of teacher back when I used to show up every day in the classroom as well. After all, if what my pupils seemed to be involved in was what might be referred to as "virtual learning", then I guess that even back then I should have been called a "virtual teacher". But of course that's not exactly what I'm referring to here.

Virtual teaching, in its new incarnation, means that I'm the person on the other side of the computer, or more accurately, I'm the person that pupils in a particular online course are in contact with when they take part in the interactive aspects of the course I'm responsible for. Online courses don't always call for interaction. In first generation online courses, for instance, an online course hardly meant more than a collection of web pages with information which pupils were called upon to access, and "access" was simply a euphemism for "read". Those first generation classes were "meat and potatoes" courses in which the computer screen replaced the textbook, but performed the same function of delivering words and pictures to pupils.

I have no intention, however, of exploring the development of online learning in this column. That's the sort of thing that I should be devoting more time to in another, related framework. What interests me in this particular column is how I see myself as a virtual teacher. In other words: do I shave before performing my "virtual teaching" functions? Should I? Should it make a difference?

I'm not sure why this question didn't come up when I was a traditional teacher. After all, back then there were numerous tasks I attended to from home, such as preparing lessons or checking homework, and it never bothered me that I did this after getting out of the shower with only a towel around me. And as a virtual teacher, often my "teaching" duties are no more than the traditional preparatory activities of teachers with only a small nod to their computerized aspects: checking materials that pupils have posted to the course's site, or responding to mail sent directly to me. And if that's what I have to attend to, I suppose that what I'm wearing is of minimal significance.

There are other times, of course, when I expect to meet pupils online. But since at these times my pupils don't see me, it would hardly seem to matter that I'm clean or dirty, dressed, shaved, or anything else. Yet perhaps paradoxically, it does - perhaps even more.

Am I supposed to be a model of behavior when I attend to my virutal teaching duties? I learned a great deal from the first class that I taught, over twenty years ago. And not the least of what I learned was that I was always being observed. They were sixth graders at the time, and were much more experienced at being pupils than I was at being a teacher. Believing that it was my responsibility to create a positive learning environment, I encouraged casualness. But when I sat on a table in the middle of an explanation, and very shortly thereafter some of my pupils did the same, I realized that they expected certain behavior from their teacher which it would be easier to comply with rather than to create too many difficulties.

My personal view of online courses tends toward all-inclusiveness, perhaps something along the lines of "children should be seen and not heard": an online course should contain everything and not require offline aid. But the reality is, of course, quite different. Whatever, my personal take on online courses are that they should be self-explanatory enough so that the teacher can always stay behind the scenes. A well constructed virtual course should permit pupils to learn by themselves. But that's apparently only in theory. In the classroom, when the teacher distributes an exercise to his/her pupils, and the distributed page contains a full explanation of what they're supposed to do, the immeidate pupil response is still to raise a hand and say "I don't understand". With a virtual course it's very much the same: no matter how hard we try and cover all the bases and make each activity self-explanatory, it's in the nature of the pupil, virtual or otherwise, not to understand.

The question of what someone is wearing is a well known internet related question. But it usually gets raised in a very different framework. In chat rooms, for instance, we expect people to present themselves differently than they "really" are. But in situations such as this, "really" becomes a rather vague term. Perhaps, in true Oscar Wilde fashion, the best way to hide our identity is to be perfectly honest about it. Nobody is going to believe you anyway, so why go to the trouble of choosing a new identity. You might as well be yourself.

There's something about this one I really like.

My pupils have seen, at least, a photograph of me. I get the impression that this is a comforting thing to them. It acts as a sort of anchor in a sea of confusion. I could, of course post a photograph of the Prince of Wales in my stead, and most of my pupils wouldn't know the difference, but it seems to me that they know very well that I have no reason to post a bogus photograph. After all, what matters isn't what I look like, but rather simply the fact that I'm letting them know. Ultimately, having a photograph, any photograph, anchors their learning experience in something tangible.

And this is precisely the reason that it's important to me to be dressed and shaved when I embark upon my virtual teaching tasks. It's part of a relationship of trust - a trust that establishes itself in numerous tangible ways in traditional learning settings, but needs a different sort of crutch in a virtual setting. So no, it doesn't matter that I've shaved, but it does matter that my pupils know that I'm performing my teaching tasks conscienciously. And somehow I think that the conscienciousness I want to convey comes across better when I've met certain non-virtual expectations.

We may be able to learn individually, but though learning can be solitary, schooling can't. Pupils seem to require a tangible entity at the other, teaching, end, be it the blackboard or the computer screen. Frankly, I'd like to get them to feel more comfortable in less traditional "educational" settings, but that's not the sort of change you can force on people. For the time being, I'll continue to be dressed and shaved when I meet my pupils online.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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