Do we still need face-to-face interactions?

Alfred wasn’t sure that the ticker tape was properly conveying the emojis

Yesterday prompted this question from a variety of different directions, but it feeds into a bigger question about the changing nature of Higher Education, especially in light of MOOCs. Face-to-face, physically-co-located meetings are relatively resource- and labour-intensive, so can we get the same benefit without them?

First prompt was the third in a series of webinars that I’ve been involved with for our INOTLES project. Using Abode Connect, we brought together educators in 4 time zones and 7 countries for a ninety minute chat about assessment and feedback. And it worked really well. The mixture of video, audio and text debate produced a rich discussion, from which I think everyone got something. Indeed, precisely because it was one in a series, we were able to focus on the matter in hand, rather than feel – as we have when meeting physically – that we need to cram in everything we can.

Second prompt was my continuing uncertainty about whether I will be joining my fine ALPS-blog colleagues (and Victor) at APSA’s TLC in January: they’ve heard, I’ve not.*

TLC was of course the occasion that first brought us together, and I’ve tried to go every other year, so that we can spend some time catching up and generating new ideas. By necessity, our group is one that interacts almost exclusively online, so we obviously can cope without the meeting, but it’s still good to see each other.

Third prompt was my first serious use of the online marking and feedback system that I have introduced to to our Faculty this year. Quite aside from the technical aspects of this, I’ve also come to realise that it further changes the interaction with students, since it invites you to channel much more feedback through the online system: no handing back of essays in class, with an opportunity for a quick chat.

So, in three very different ways, I have been thinking about the role of face-to-face interactions, both with students and with colleagues.

Now, you might expect that – given my work on simulations – I’d be unreservedly in favour of face-to-face, because of the richness of that mode of interaction. And you’d be right to an extent.

In all three of the prompts I’ve just mentioned, face-to-face modes can bring something that is probably impossible to achieve otherwise. The scope of deep engagement, the building of soft elements of relationships, the unverbal cueing – none of that works in the same way elsewhere (if at all).

But at the same time, I can see a huge value in online interaction: indeed, without it, this blog and the INOTLES project wouldn’t work at all. And the process-tracing and transparency of the online marking/feedback system makes for a more manageable experience than its predecessors (transition costs notwithstanding).

In short, it’s that old chestnut: it’s not better or worse, just different.

Personally and professionally, we need to get students exposed to different kinds of interaction, since they will not always be able to choose what situation they find themselves in.

Seen as such, the important factor is to develop everyone’s reflection about the nature, benefits and limitations of those interactions; and that includes us too. It’s not only useful as a skill in of itself, but it’s also useful in making sure that we all get the most of how we deal with other people.


* – If someone from the TLC committee is reading, I’d really like to go, so let me know.

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