Though it isn’t the topic of my current research, I’ve been interested in the Internet (as an object of study) for some time, in particular its possibilities for connecting people and helping them generate new relationships and forms of social support that might not otherwise have been available. I think this is because I’ve been engaging in forms of distance-networking for over ten years now, starting with snail mail and leading all the way to Twitter. I’m not particularly sociable by nature, because unfamiliar social situations tend to tire me out; all social interaction is a form of performance, but some people find it more taxing than others. Over time I’ve discovered that for me personally, it’s easier to cultivate an initial level of familiarity through mediated interactions, rather than through increased in-person socializing, because the latter tires me out too quickly.
While I was working on my undergraduate degree in Communication Studies, I did a project about how people conceptualise the Internet, as signified by the way they talked about it. I became interested in this because I noticed that people talked about “online” experience precisely as if it happened in a “world”, or a place, where they could “go” – even though clearly it wasn’t the same as the space they inhabited physically. Why was the sense of place so strong that it dominated our conceptual framing of the Internet? How have we come to experience a communication tool itself as being (or providing) a “space”, and what is that space like, compared to others?
The reason I started thinking about this again recently is that the debate about online education has become more intense, and along with it comes what is usually a subtext about physical vs. virtual. This division is emphasised, either positively or negatively (depending on the argument), when we see references to the Internet as set apart from “real life”. On the utopian side, some argue that you can “be whoever you want to be” online, or less dramatically, that the Internet provides flexibility and accessibility to education (for example) – that it is a “better” place. From the more dystopian perspective, technology cuts us off from “real” connections/relationships and experiences with other people, causing us to become too focussed on our tools and oblivious to their effects on our cognitive, emotional and psychological well-being; and it can exacerbate the “divides” we seek to bridge.
Like most binaries, this one is overly simplistic. Real/unreal, physical/virtual, utopian/dystopian, all these illustrate extremes when in reality much of the discussion is about grey areas. The critique of (and ongoing debate about) “digital dualism” is a good reminder of this.
I think online/offline is a useful distinction, but that relationships we develop online are not segregated from or less significant than others that start with in-person contact, nor are they part of a different “reality”. More and more, we see there are gradations, and newer technologies and tools further blur these lines. The friendship I have with someone because we saw each other every day during undergrad might not continue after the degree ends, whereas I might stay in touch for longer with people I’ve “met” only through Twitter interactions that have morphed into coffee dates. The practice of developing academic networks through Twitter is an example of how this fluidity works; for those without established contacts, chatting with strangers online makes it a lot easier to meet them in-person later at a conference.
All that being said, the emphasis on online education as an industry (or set of marketable services) has grown in the context of higher education’s increased stratification, loss of funding, and massification, so we have plenty of reason to ask critical questions about the nature of various spaces of learning and what can and does happen in them. What is the difference between sitting in a room with others, vs. being with peers or colleagues who are “there” in some other way? What about affect/emotion, how is this expressed and experienced by students working and communicating through the Internet, as opposed to in a traditional classroom (and how might they work together)? Shouldn’t we consider elements of privacy, when everything is being “shared” and/or documented online in one form or another? Who will feel free to talk? Will everyone be able to gain access?
We also need to consider how some of the assumed properties of the online environment are extrapolated and projected to form a new image of the student, the self-motivated and autonomous learner (autodidact) who is so frequently championed in techno-futurist rhetoric (in spite of the collaborative nature of so much of what happens on the Internet). But this type of person is still also a relatively rare learner, an ideal type to be plugged into the process of creating future policy. The “structures” created for Internet spaces may also be designed with such assumptions in mind. If we are going to acknowledge and accept the reality of online experience (and that education happens there), we need to think about how that reflects our other experiences in the world. As with all places, the Internet is more hospitable to some people than to others.