Dini Metro-Roland and Paul Farber offer an elegiac defense of traditional, face-to-face teaching in their 2010 essay, “Lost Causes: Online Instruction and the Integrity of Presence.” Their implicit critique of online learning is framed as a lover’s concern for the well-being of the beloved, in this case the craft of teaching. The authors note that there is a sense of inevitability to the growth of online courses, and, while noting that fiscal considerations play some role in this, they acknowledge that the online format confers certain benefits upon students. Believing that the most important difference between traditional and online settings is the form of presence involved in each, the authors group the perceived benefits of online instruction under the notion of “utility of presence” which they contrast to the “integrity of presence” that attends face-to-face instruction.
Utility of presence is premised on the freedom, flexibility, and control that online instruction offer to participants. Free from the constraints of embodiment, online students may engage their courses asynchronously at their own convenience and they may exert “maximal control over when and for how long one will do what is called for in making one’s presence felt.” Altogether the medium allows for “engagement constituted by patterns of individual choice.”
Metro-Roland and Farber correctly link the dynamics of utility of presence to the ethos of the broader online experience in which online learning is embedded. They note, for example, that, “Being online carries with it the ready capacity, moment to moment, to layer content (for example, background music, instant messaging, online gaming) or launch into other forms of activity altogether — whether course related or not — at any time.”
Consequently, the online learning experience privileges “the capacity to attend to just what one wants or needs right now and, recognizing the vast range of options, learning to dismiss or disregard the rest.” This form of “knowingness” is “not suspended when one comes to an online course.” In their estimation, the virtual presence that constitutes online learning is finally “the product of judgments as to how to gratify one’s inclinations and efficiently serve one’s purposes online.”
This is a point that is all too often missed. The medium of online learning is the Internet and the habits and practices that intend the medium, including for example fractured patterns of attention, likewise shape the experience online courses. Metro-Roland and Farber do not ground the elaboration of the “utility of presence” in an indictment of the quality of students who enroll in online courses nor in mere nostalgia for traditional forms. Rather, they ground their discussion in what they take to be the nature of the medium and the modes of interaction it necessarily elicits from users:
We speculate that the tendency favors the virtues of convenience, accessibility, efficiency, personal satisfaction, (and profitability). To take hold in the boundless context of mediated choice, all involved must be attuned to what they choose to bring to the transaction and the purposes they have for doing so.
By contrast, embodied presence is constrained and bounded with regard to space, time, and self-presentation: “Students and teachers alike are branded by their dress, gender, and skin color and time-space constraints often contribute to our anxiety, frustration, and ennui.”
Yet for all of these limitations, the authors believe that what they term “integrity of presence” is an unpredictably emergent property of embodied classrooms that sustains the love of teaching. Quick to distance their notion of integrity from traces of elitism that term may invoke, they clarify the concept as follows: “Integrity as we are speaking of it is not a matter of the fixed character of an individual; rather it is inherent in the quality of attention, and arises as an effect of the engagement of those present.”
This kind of attention has the possibility of generating genuinely transformative encounters between embodied participants in the unpredictable and sometimes messy space of the face-to-face classroom. This kind of engagement is irreducibly embodied and, in the authors’ view, unattainable in online environments. As they put it, “Integrity of presence is thus tenuous and unpredictable, not the product of pure will.” Putting the matter thus reinforces the contrast with utility of presence which is characterized by the expansion of choice and exercise of will.
Metro-Roland and Farber conclude by conceding that “embodied presence in teaching, even in optimal cases, is inefficient” and that “it is unclear that traditional instruction can compete.” Online instruction “promises egalitarian relationships of utility and a field of choices with which one can tailor one’s presence, secured from critical scrutiny and unwanted entanglements” and by do doing is aligned with culture’s mediated zeitgeist. But for all of its utility and efficiency, the online experience fails to generate the sorts of moments that redeem the practice of teaching. Describing those moments, the authors write,
Such things happen, as we all know, though we never quite know when, or why. Slogging along, grappling with the forms and content of face-to-face teaching, the endless iterations of classroom meetings, the situation sometimes gels. Most everyone has been there we suspect, though here we must appeal to your experience of things coming together — maybe not for all or all at once, but tangibly — it gets “real,” the body language changes, eyes brighten, a restless desire of some to jump in and take part becomes evident, perhaps a hearty gale of shared laughter, a plenitude of significant connections and avenues to pursue comes into view, the enervation morphs into heightened energy.
It is moments like these, that answer the most fundamental question: “in the embodied presence of face-to-face teaching, burdened as it is by spatial, temporal, and social limitations, just what is there to love?”
With an eloquence and style uncharacteristic of articles that appear in scholarly journals of education, Metro-Roland and Farber remind us that there is in fact much to love.