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Teaching Without Bodies

Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand. The truth of this Chinese proverb has been put to the test during the Coronavirus, which has turned online teaching into an essential part of our everyday lives. What happens to the learning process when we are unable to meet face-to-face? In this article the Danish researcher Theresa Schilhab talks about the impact of digital teaching on the learning process and the people involved.

“Hello, Helloooo. Can you hear me? Are you receiving me loud and clear? Hello? OK, I’ll try logging off and restarting the computer.”

This is the kind of situation that has become commonplace for teachers, students and participants in the kind of Zoom, Skype or Teams meetings which have been used as platforms for virtual classrooms, lecture theatres and meetings ever since the Coronavirus took over our everyday lives.

“We spend a huge amount of time on technical problems. It’s so tedious. And you can’t just blame the technology – we’re pretty hopeless, too! The technology can’t cope with the tasks we want it to perform, and we can’t cope with the technology. The problem is that this technology has been developed by engineers who don’t necessarily have profound insight into the way people think and act in social contexts,” explains Theresa Schilhab, an associate professor of biological cognition at the School of Education, Aarhus University.

She has studied both biology and philosophy, combining the two fields in her research – which includes the study of educational neuroscience. She is interested in what happens in the brain when we learn from, sense and interact with other people in manmade and natural spaces. In particular, her research has focused on the interaction between People, bodily and attentional processes and technology. So she’s the obvious person to ask about what happens to us when our teaching becomes wholly or partially digital – which is exactly what has happened at Denmark’s universities ever since the Coronavirus prevented large groups of people from gathering in the same room at the same time.

“When we’re all in the same room and the teacher is facing the students, we can interpret each other’s subtle facial expressions, gestures and body language. All this input goes into our mutual perception and feedback and becomes a form of tacit   knowledge in our communication with each other. But when teaching becomes digital and the parties involved are sitting alone behind their screens, their perception of each other is challenged because the conditions for communication become blurred,” explains Schilhab.

Harder to interpret

When the channels of communication are purely visual or auditive, the audience easily become distracted or misunderstand the message. For instance, irony is difficult to understand in these circumstances. This is simply because the situation makes it impossible to use the senses we normally employ when we’re in the same room and can sense each other and the context in which our messages are transmitted.

“From a biological point of view, the problem is that our full physical experience of each other is lost when digital technology takes over in the teaching situation. This is because our body language transmits a huge number of signals that are normally incorporated in tacit knowledge. It becomes harder to interpret the non-verbal messages we send each other because the gestures and body language we can see on our screens don’t give us the full picture,” says Schilhab, adding that teachers giving lectures to large groups of students often face a dual challenge.

“They have to teach half the group in a lecture theatre, but these sessions are also streamed live to the rest of the group sitting at home. So what’s the best way of talking to both groups at the same time? You need both practice and experience, because getting used to new ways of being with other people is a cognitive challenge for us all.” 

We weren’t born digital

In other words, digital communication makes it difficult to achieve the kind of synergy that arises in more conventional forms of communication. However, Schilhab is optimistic: the tools we use will gradually become more sophisticated, and we will gain more experience of the digital universe.

“We’ve had millions of years of evolutionary experience when it comes to communicating with each other face-to-face. That’s why it’s intuitive for us to communicate in this way. So it’s hardly surprising that we need a bit of time to get used to digital communication. After all, we weren’t born digital – we are physical beings. We will gradually gain more experience and awareness of digital technology. We’ll get better at decoding other people’s gestures and body language even though there’s a screen between us,” says Theresa Schilhab.

We will slowly develop the tacit knowledge and physical awareness needed to communicate more effectively via the screen. But she underlines that even though our use of digital technology improves, it will never give us the kind of strong, sensory, physical awareness that we have when we’re actually in the same room as each other.

“This is simply because digital technology prevents us from having the same access to each other’s hormonal signals – the so called pheromones - including things like the way we blush or frown,” she says and adds:

“Digital teaching can do some things that teaching face-to-face can’t. And vice versa. We still need to study the precise differences between the two types of teaching. And we need to find out how to combine them meaningfully.”

She is referring to work coming out of the large European reading research network E-READ in which she participated, which compares digital reading with reading in print. It turns out that good readers do not become better readers by reading more digitally. But poor readers can become better readers if they read more digital texts.

“The point is that although digital teaching can’t replace teaching face-to-face, it can be used as a supplement. And technology does help some people to learn more,” she says.

Hiding behind screens

Some students find it hard to replace meeting on campus with a virtual meeting at home.

“They miss the framework and the affordances that the campus creates. For them there’s a huge difference between attending a lecture and sitting at home studying while looking at their laundry and pot plants. These things distract us,” says Schilhab.

Other students find sitting at home an advantage – it’s more peaceful, so it’s a better learning environment. For some, it’s convenient to be able to switch off your camera, make a coffee, have a spot of lunch or start folding your laundry while listening to a lecture.

“This depends very much on what kind of person you are, and how you learn best. Some introverted students actually prefer digital teaching and digital meetings. As long as they can hide behind their screens, they find it easier to take part. And face-to-face contact can be avoided in the digital classroom,” says Schilhab.

Are you receiving me?

However, teachers sometimes find it extremely frustrating to teach online because they don’t know whether the students are really there. This triggers a sense of uncertainty in the teachers, as well as thoughts such as: Can they see me? Are they listening? Do they understand what I’m saying? Have they left the session because they’re bored, or because they don’t understand what I’m saying? Or is there any other reason?

This uncertainty arises because the people involved are not in genuine contact with each other. And if we consider society as a whole, watching people on the street spending more time looking at their phones than looking at each other, it’s easy to start worrying that the increase in digitalisation permeating our lives at present is causing us to lose this sense of genuine contact. It’s a concern that has been voiced before. But Theresa Schilhab thinks we should retain a balanced view, observe children and young people, and learn from their natural way of interacting with each other in online universes.

“Children and young people can teach us something in this area. For instance, my 17-year-old daughter has very close friendships with young people she has never met in person. She feels closely connected with these online friends. We call her generation ‘digital natives’, partly because they use digital media intuitively and don’t regard the digital world as a contrast to the physical world. The digital world is a natural feature of their practice or upbringing. They can be present in both worlds – both digital and physical – and switch between them without difficulty. For better or worse, they don’t regard the digital world as the opposite of the physical world,” says Schilhab

The value of face-to-face encounters

She is interested in studying how the Corona situation changes the ways in which we interact.

“It’s true that meetings and online teaching have become part of our daily lives. But on the other hand a lot of people have started going for walks together, because this is something that we are allowed to do during the pandemic. It’s easy enough to observe social distancing in the woods, in the park, on the beach, and even on the street to some extent. So we can spend time together and get away from the screen as well.

The value we attach to the countryside and the physical world around us has increased because digital meetings and online teaching are perceived as difficult, stressful, and in particular non-physical – and therefore unsatisfying.

“In future we may well attach more importance to the value of face-to-face encounters, having learned to appreciate them because we’ve had to survive without them. It’s true that technology changes us, but we also learn to navigate around it and compensate for its limitations,” she says.

The fact that technology changes our lives is nothing new, she adds. Not if we understand technology in the original sense of the word. It actually means ‘the science of craft’, which means far more than a bit of hardware we can plug into the mains or put batteries in.

“Mankind has always been closely connected to technology. And we’ve always been worried about what we lose when we introduce new technology. For instance, Plato was a critic of the written word because he believed that people would forget how to memorise and retain knowledge in the mind”

Personal bio

THERESA SCHILHAB, dr. pæd. is an associate professor at DPU, Aarhus University. Her research focuses on the importance of physical and tacit knowledge for our cognition and ability to think. She is the research director of a five-year research project called Naturlig teknik, which deals with the way in which smart technology affects the way children perceive nature. She teaches on the Master’s degree programme in didactics – material culture