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:
- 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)
- 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 🙂
- 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.
- 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!