Listening to Sherry Turkle…Thinking about Online Education



MIT Professor Sherry Turkle is interested in the impact of new communication devices on human relationships. In her latest work, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age, she explores how the ubiquity of devices and the frequency of their use has had an impact, most often adverse, on face-to-face conversations and the human capacity for empathy and intimacy. [Professor Turkle made a presentation at the Chicago Humanities Festival on November 6th.]

Since she’s in a university setting, many of her studies are done with college undergraduates almost all of whom are heavily invested and quite skillful with social media. She laments the fact that student visits to professors’ offices for academic and personal conversation have declined markedly in the last two decades. She observes wryly that what students most expect from their professors these days is a quick and perfect response to a perfectly formed e-mail question, a question often about class procedures rather than course content. Because she knows that in the past there has been a high correlation between overall satisfaction with a university education and time spend in casual conversation with professors, she wonders how students today, adverse to seeking out such encounters, will look back at their education.

In her talk, she shared other interesting discoveries about student technology use. For instance, she says that her students follow The Rule of Three. This guideline suggests that in small conversational groups one has permission to look at a smart phone once three members of the group are in face-to-face conversations. She also lays at the feet of the communication revolution part of the responsibility for today’s students’ avoidance of classroom conflict about ideas.

Since I believe that one of the possible effects of reading literature is the increase in the capacity for empathy, I was especially interested in her comments about the decline of empathy. The good work that books can do can be reinforced by talking about those books in a classroom setting. It makes sense that listening to and arguing with others about a personal response to a literary character is one good way to develop an understanding of The Other.  Isn’t it a good thing to know that a classmate finds Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise despicable rather than admirable? Or to see that others read Frost’s speaker’s advice that “good fences make good neighbors” as a straightforward rather than as an ironic statement?

As Turkle shared her research with the CHF audience, I couldn’t help but think about the online course that I’m teaching, an introduction to fiction class in which nine students are enrolled. Of course, I returned to a question that I have repeatedly asked of myself: “Have I designed this class in the best possible way?”

But I also found reinforcement for a feeling that I have had since I started teaching online: that I am teaching with both hands tied behind  my back..and more. Now I’m not highly animated in my use of hand gestures and body movement in the classroom (I’m Irish-German, not Italian, though that’s a fuzzy stereotype), but I would feel greatly incapacitated if my department chair put me into a straightjacket before I walked into the classroom. Online education goes one step further by removing me entirely from the learning space: no hand gestures, but also no facial cues or vocal inflections.

Here’s what I can’t do:

  1. Enthusiastically read an important passage from the text, reading it in such a way that a fuller meaning of the story, especially its tone, can be revealed. (And asking that students try their hand at oral interpretation.)
  2. Recognize in a student facial expression the look of boredom or confusion or exasperation or wonder and think on the spot of a response.
  3. Present an interpretation of a story or a strategy for reading in1/10th the time that it takes me online and, perhaps, with twice the impact.
  4. Display through non-verbal signals my enthusiasm if not passion for critical inquiry and personal connections to the reading. With my physical presence I can bear witness to the value of the intellectual life more powerful than I can in cyberspace.
  5. Demonstrate that it is possible to sustain for 30 minutes or even more a full attention to the task of interpretation, with only the text at the center of the action (and to try to develop the students’ capacities for doing the same).  The classroom becomes a great place to unplug.
  6. Use my humor (I think I have a pretty good one) to create a feeling of security, to gently cajole students into explaining themselves more effectively, and to moved them toward constructive conflict, which they are disinclined to engage in.
  7. Engage in relevant-to-the-material self-disclosure, at least not as readily or as easily as I can in the classroom.
  8. Show students that I have a well-developed fashion sense (Not!)

I wonder if students in online courses, especially in the humanities, find that they are learning with their hands behind their backs.

I have a somewhat tentative answer to my own question. Recently I taught the introduction to fiction class in a blended format. I set it up so that we were to meet every other week across eight weeks. During our third meeting (that is after one “in-class week” and one “in cyberspace” week) one of the students proposed meeting every week until the end of the term in exchange for a slight relaxation in the reading and writing in the even number weeks. The other students agreed to the change and I was delighted with their choice. I’d like to think that their decision had less to do with the 10% reduction in reading and writing (though they had 200% increase in class time) and more to do with the pleasure that they took in one another’s company  and their discovery that their learning was enhanced in a group setting. I’d also like to think that responded favorably to my classroom presence.

Turkle’s previous book was title Alone Together. I find that the subtitle of the book – Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other – speaks to one of the deficiencies in online expectation.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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