As much as I love online education, I think that my experiences thus far have been hampered by the lack of interaction with classmates. Online course design that does not encourage students to get to know each other is deficient, in my opinion, since we have as much to learn from our classmates as we do our instructors. This is particularly true in graduate school since many of us already have rich life and vocational experiences that give context to our coursework. This is precisely why I chose to interview a classmate, Daniel Leiker, who I barely knew before taking this class. I have taken another class with him and I don’t recall us interacting in the previous class, but I did know that he lived in Germany. I made an overture to Daniel to ‘meet’ online and he obliged my offer. We met this morning, March 10th, and spent 45 minutes or so discussing his work in Germany, the state of educational technology, beer, and career plans.
Daniel is a Greensboro native who moved to Germany in 2011 to pursue a career in teaching English. He lives near the border of France in a town of about 100,000 people. He now tutors adults with English part-time and attends graduate school part time. Daniel enjoys living in Germany, but occasionally longs for American culture. He indicated that Germans are not as friendly or humorous as Americans and lack the creative, entrepreneurial spirit. This is particularly true in German education. He recounted a story of showing high school teachers how to use Prezi two years ago. They were astonished that such technology existed. He does enjoy the ease of travel in Europe, its compact cities, and the number of vacation days he gets. German employers generally give 4 weeks of vacation, plus additional holidays! We discussed our plans with the M.A. program and found that we have common interests in that regard. He and I enjoy using Web 2.0 technologies and moving beyond the novelty of them to the practical application of them in the classroom. We also share our beer preferences for some time – I had to ask about German beer since I associate Germany with beer. Let’s just say that Daniel also has ‘discerning’ tastes in beer!
Reflecting on Virtual Conversations on Skype
I am relatively new to virtual conferencing – I have only used Skype or similar video conferencing software once or twice. I’m still not completely at ease using video conferencing. I think the problem is that I can simultaneously see someone else’s face and my own. This strains interpersonal communication for me as it makes me even more conscious of my facial expressions and demeanor, a sort of looking-glass self on steroids. I’m all the more aware of my impression management techniques when I can see my own face, particularly when interacting with someone in real time who I barely know. I found myself wondering about the ‘rules of engagement’ with online conferencing. For example, I think that I naturally make good eye contact with people in real life while occasionally looking away (continual eye contact is creepy). At times, I found myself staring at my corner of the screen rather than the web cam (perhaps my mind naturally follows the trail of sound which emits from the computer?). Daniel is an engaging conversationalist, but I found myself distracted by the novelty of Skype. It is strange to think that I was communicating with someone thousands of miles away, though I’ve done the same thing using the telephone for many years. I experienced some type of collapse, not a full collapse of context as YouTube vloggers, but something intangible. While Skype provides a platform for real-time, face-to-face communication, I still cannot see the entire individual in their context. It’s not easy in this environment to gauge body language which heavily shapes our face-to-face interactions. How do we, for example, indicate that we’re ready to end a conversation apart from subtle body language cues?
The experience having an in-depth conversation with a classmate was invaluable for me. I think this made this course and the M.A. program more ‘real’ to me; I found that Daniel shared the same perceptions and frustrations with online learning that I did. Hearing his perceptions of this course and this program confirmed some things I thought all along, such as the ‘open-endedness’ of online learning in general and this course and the dynamic nature of educational media as field of study. We both agreed that individuals taking this course or similar ones could tailor their learning experience and that educational media is so new and fluid that it often lacks an established cannon like other disciplines. How could you major in psychology, for example, and not learn about Freud? Neither one of use could point to a single educational media scholar, nor a text discussed in our class that was older than a decade. Daniel and I both agreed that we are entering into a very nascent field of study, a reality that is exciting for us both. Perhaps conversing with a fellow student and having your subjective experiences confirmed is a proof that reality is intersubjective? I don’t know, but I would definitely like to engage with other classmates in online classmates in the future. I think that creating a community is online is difficult and awkward, but it would solve a major deficiency of online learning: avoiding the ‘siloing’ of students and building community in the online classroom.