(Initial) Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali's blog has now moved to http://blog.mahabali.me

Meaningful Online Relationships

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I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while. It’s about the possibilities and potential of meaningful online relationships. It’s been sort of building up and is about to explode after two articles (followed by facebook discussions, mostly on rhizo14) I read that irritated the heck out of me:

First, this one by Jason Hogan “The Campus is Dead, Long Live the Campus“. Here is the part of the article that irritated me:

Virtual communities can provide an alternative to the on-campus experience but, as yet, there is little evidence to suggest that virtual engagement with peers and with content matter experts can provide the same benefits as being immersed in the intellectual culture on campus.

After reading it, I tweeted:

To which the author responded:

(Note: in re-reading the article, it is generally quite a balanced one, otherwise, recognizing the benefits of both f2f and online learning)

BUT the author’s response raised by hackles even more, so I responded with a stream of tweets (to which he did not respond). Basically, I was saying that:

  1. Deep relationships can happen online (especially maybe for people who are more verbal/textual and possibly cyborgs – I refer here to this old post of Bonnie Stewart’s which resonated with me very much about how non-hyper-connected people had not idea what kind of lives the hyper-connected of us are living)
  2. You need to have relationships like that to understand them. My mentor is someone I only ever met f2f about 3 times total. We talked on the phone about 6 times total over a 7 year period (same for a very close friend of mine – both of them above 60, btw). I did not go into detail on twitter but will do so now. Saying online relationships can never be as valuable as f2f relationships is like being someone who has had many failed romantic relationships and assuming no one in the world can be happily married. Or it’s like being happily married in a certain way and assuming the only people can be happy is to be married and having the same kind of relationship you are. It is an absolute generalization that makes no sense. It is also understandable that someone who has not experienced a deep online relationship might think it impossible; an illusion. But you need to go through a really rough time in your f2f life with only your online friends as a lifeline to know what deep online relationships can do for you (Danielle Paradis comes to mind – this really touching post). I have several of these relationships with people I have never met f2f, and also with people I’ve only met f2f a handful of times. Don’t ask me how in a 6-week period (or even earlier) many of these happened on rhizo14. The collaborative autoethnography we’re doing might give some ideas. Or not 🙂
  3. People use text-only media to communicate in their most intimate relationships. Love letters, anyone? Text-messaging (or even more intimate uses of text messaging)? And phones, of course. So much important stuff happens with text-only media. And that’s even completely ignoring the possibilities of audiovisual online communication. Yes, you can’t get physical hugs online, but you can get virtual hugs that make you feel so warm inside they are better than physical. I remember many many many  an online communication: email, tweet, facebook message that made me feel great when my f2f day was going down the drain. I’m not talking a bad hair day here. I’m talking disastrous catastrophic days where my only solace was an online friend or two. Sometimes because I could talk it over with them, sometimes just by being themselves and lifting me up unintentionally. Regardless, I have been through hell and back several times in my personal life and my online friends have been my saviors.
  4. On a more logistical note related to learning – no one kind of education can be generalized about as being better or worse than any other kind of education. There are a multitude of ways of teaching/learning online and f2f. The same teacher can do exactly the same thing two semesters in a row (heck, the same semester with two different groups of students) and get completely different results (don’t tell me you’ve never seen that?). There are a zillion factors that can help make any learning experience good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, or anything in between. Sometimes you hit a “sweet spot” with many people and you get something like rhizo14 (Dave Cormier said something about fertile ground, which I took to mean the right conditions for something like that to blossom; I’m still trying to figure it out). But not everyone enjoyed rhizo14 as much or to the same extent; strong as I feel the community is, I know some people were in rhizo14 but are not part of the “core” of it, even though rhizomes have no center, there are still people who are more strongly connected than everyone else (I was recently deeply disappointed that I had missed the tweeting and blogging of someone I had known online in 2003  and with whom I was hoping to re-connect – who was on rhizo14 but not on the facebook group – probably because near the end I stopped following the twitter as closely)

There was a facebook discussion on rhizo14 (based on our collective irritation to a claim that “online edu like love cannot be moved online” – I don’t want to get into specifics so as not to overquote people outside the group). But the gist is that we were trying to figure out what it was that made us feel online relationships can be meaningful and intimate, sometimes even more valuable that f2f ones, or at least valuable in their own right, not as a poor second to f2f. Not all hyper-connected people are like me (I’m hyper in real life, too, talkative and hypersocial) – but there must be a group of factors/characteristics that, when found together in a person, increase the likelihood they will be able to build online relationships.

I think Simon alluded to two things that I misinterpreted but revolve around two ideas: literacy & affinity. The first, literacy, is obvious. If you’re not able to navigate social media, and then not able to do so with sound judgment (that’s the literacy part), you won’t be able to even get any relationships, deep or not. The second is affinity for digital communication. But how does that last one come about? I did my master’s online and enjoyed it tremendously. Obviously, completing it successfully meant I managed to learn online. But many others dropped out. Which means there was probably already something that helped me complete it even before I “learned to learn online”. I had not had any online learning experiences beforehand, though I’d had to work occasionally in multinational teams that met on phone conference occasionally. But that was no comparison.

Well, so I’m still not exactly sure what it is, really, that enables some people to have deep and meaningful and intimate online relationships, more than others. I don’t posit that everyone would be comfortable with this, or would trust a complete online stranger (Ary Aranguiz made up the term “frainger” on her blog earlier).

OK. This is a post of incomplete thoughts. But I wanted to get them onto my blog…

Meanwhile, I leave you with a padlet my students and  I created today in class. I gave them flowers and asked them to reflect on “Education is like flowers”… Enjoy!

Education is like flowers padlet

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Author: Maha Bali

Associate professor of practice, American University in Cairo

10 thoughts on “Meaningful Online Relationships

  1. I agree Maha Bali. This analogy was just perfect, ” Saying online relationships can never be as valuable as f2f relationships is like being someone who has had many failed romantic relationships and assuming no one in the world can be happily married”. I don’t know how relationships can form so intimately without f2f connections but I do know that they can.

  2. Maha, I have friends from the first online class (ESL as a volunteer) I taught in 1996 — on my network and that I still keep up with. When I left UC Davis at the end of 1999 and moved to NM to take care of my terminally ill mother, they were very much with me and supported me emotionally through that year of caretaking. One of those students was in a MOOC with me a while back, Hybrid P’s #moocmooc, and informed the course FB group that I was an early adopter, teaching this way in the 90s (even if we didn’t know what the name for it was or that it even had one…)

    With the 100% online relationships, I count relationships that might not have survived distance without internet communication. These include not just friends, family and colleagues but girls, now in their 40s that I taught to ride 30+ years ago. Now they are friends on Facebook and sometimes still talk about their lessons and favorite ponies.

  3. @Maha – I am quite reluctant to participate here, having made such a hash of my participation in the thread on the Sky Gilbert article, so please give me a fresh start;) I prefer to think that online interaction augments our relationships. I agree that we can have very fruitful relationships online with people we have never met but I think these have to be set in the context of our daily lived lives, online and offline. There has been limited qualitative study of the experience of distance and online learners but I remembered this study I read over 10 years ago http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=v-UR_2QRFpwC&oi=fnd&pg=PA431&dq=Distance+Learners%27+Internet,+Home,+Work+Worlds&ots=KYfvq4JHKa&sig=iulGf5t99YGd6QlnKiNJ3qXDP4c#v=onepage&q=Distance%20Learners'%20Internet%2C%20Home%2C%20Work%20Worlds&f=false
    This talks about the synergies between online and work and home life, with retreat from local community being temporary.
    Postings from the FB group suggest that a significant minority of rhizo14 participants have had a wonderful experience but I think it is very important to remember that silence does not always signify assent, and I know that there have been some frustrations that are not discussed openly.
    Both the Lodge and Mitchell articles (neither particularly well) are trying to contribute to a debate on what a future HE campus might be like. This is an important debate, as is the debate about global education and affordability. IMO, thinking about the benefits that might be lost by undergraduates not attending face to face is an important part of this debate. I am glad that my three adult children had the campus experience even if I have some reservations about some aspects of their education.
    Maha, why were you so irritated by the quote you give from Jason Lodge when you later acknowledge the article as balanced? In his tweet “70% f2f communication is non-verbal” he makes an interesting point – is it not worth addressing? Some of the ‘ruptures’ we have had on #rhizo14 could be explored by thinking about the limitations of text-only communication as well as its richness.

    • Hi Frances, yeah, the article is relatively balanced. I just had a problem with him saying virtual relationships can never be of the same quality as f2f ones. Otherwise, I do value f2f obviously!!! I just don’t think we should necessarily always assume that virtual is a poor relation. I don’t know if it was clear (i prob said it on fb) but i think the non-classroom part of campus culture has a valuable socialization purpose (a hidden or subtly hidden curriculum) beyond the classroom learning; even the classroom learning can (if done well) have that value of preparing students to handle f2f work environments, for example. So then in that sense, students also need to have a virtual component to prepare them to also have good online relationships at work and personally and for future professional development because this can open up doors.

      RE: the 70% of comm is non-verbal … I responded about so much of our f2f relationships already have large portions that do not depend on visual/tactile communication. And seriously, you can have someone you see EVERY day and talk to for HOURS f2f but be closer to someone you met only online, right?

      I did not mean to generalize that everyone enjoyed rhizo14 to the same extent or felt the same way (i did use the word “collectively” but that was just the ppl who commented on that article, obviously). And obviously my relationships with diff ppl on rhizo14 are different from each other, not all go beyond a professional respect, but some do. And some outside rhizo14 as well. I think it is possible for someone to have many deep online relationships but possibly not have enjoyed rhizo14 or not thought it amazing (thankfully, quite a few of those views were aired in the collaborative autoethnography, for which I am grateful, or else the resultant research would be skewed towards those who loved it (it still would be, I suspect, but less than I had anticipated).

      (Cannot remember the details of what you said about the Gilbert article on fb, so giving u a fresh start 🙂

  4. Thanks Maha – that’s a very thoughtful response. I wonder if the ideal learning experience needs us to be friends with everyone who is participating. for people to be like-minded. I suspect that could limit the learning. I have always enjoyed friendship in my work and study lives but have a learned a lot with and from people who aren’t my friends. I also disagree on certain things with my friends. The Internet gives us the possibility to meet people who are different from ourselves in many ways but differences present communicational challenges. In online learning spaces, I believe that we should actively promote dialogue rather than seek to reach agreement. This means that we need ways to communicate that help us get past misunderstanding and that acknowledge that agreement and disagreement are both permitted.

  5. Thanks (again) Maha for sharing your thoughts and making me think.

    I had to laugh a little (respectfully !) because of your first intense reactions on twitter. It shows a character full of passion. 🙂
    It reminds me of my beloved wife, who’s also full of temperament and passion.

    It also shows that one can get to know each other on several aspects through online text.
    You describe your feelings and actions, I interpret them and have my own feelings because of it.
    It ‘proves’ your point that making meaningful connections through the internet is possible.

    I liked your notes on the “hidden curriculum” in real campus life.
    That’s very important IMO because the hidden curriculum is often more important than the official curriculum.
    Online teaching, learning, connections could be a completely different thing because there’s less distraction of the learning.

    I always say at my university that one of the most important things of campus life is meeting your future partner, often also the mother / father of your future children.
    I say that to make teachers think about what’s going on in the heads of our students (with hormones racing through their bodies), and make them realize that there’s much more to students’ lives than the teachers’ assignments and lectures.

    So, in other words, yes I think campus life is important, and yes I think there can be excellent learning through online connections.

    Blogging and online sharing of student curated contents, can be ways to try to have the best of both worlds.

    • Thanks, Ronald. Good points about hormones and meeting future partners (though I did not meet mine that way, i had originally thought i could not possibly marry someone who hadn’t gone to the same uni – it sounds arrogant and exclusionary, but u’d understand if u were here n Egypt and 18 years old). Umm, i was reading your post (wondering why wordpress asked me to approve it, since i thought you’d posted before) thinking you were Ronald from rhizo14 but your gravatar has a different last name, so was not so sure 🙂 you “sound” like him 🙂 wondered for a while, then looked at your google plus name, and i am 99% sure it is you 🙂 how come u have two diff surnames? Or is one ur middle name? Was about to google Dutch naming then gave up 🙂

      • Yeah, strange, but WordPress asked me to log in. Since I keep different accounts everywhere, different avatars pop up. I never did make an avatar, it just there automatically.

  6. Pingback: Online Learning and the Power of the PLN

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