Virtual Presence

I’m over halfway through reading a book by Ethan Nichtern called The Road Home: A Contemporary Exploration of the Buddhist Path. Yes, I identify as a Buddhist. However, it doesn’t matter if you do or not as the book is full of ideas that can give you much to consider in terms of how you live your life. In this case, I started to think about how some of Nichtern’s ideas could be applied to teaching.

There is a section of the book – pages 128-129 if you have it – where he discusses being present and what it means to be present in relation to technology use. I love the following quote:

Physical reality and virtual reality are locked in a twenty-first-century tug-of-war. The answer is not to destroy our technology and go back to some pre-virtual paradise – the answer is to turn communication into a mindfulness practice. We need to know the guidelines for when we are physically present with someone, and when we are virtually present with someone, and to create principles around each of those periods of communication, so that we engage in each more fully (pg. 128).

When I read this quote, I found myself asking the following questions:

  • What does it mean to be present both virtually and in person?
  • How do we use technology in our teaching mindfully?
  • How can we help students engage in technology mindfully?

At this point, it seems critical to define the term mindfulness. I found a great page that expounds on it here. While I am sure there are many different ways to understand what mindfulness is, I do like the concept that it is about paying attention on purpose, within the present moment, and in a non-judgmental manner.

And let me tell you, that is really, really, REALLY difficult to do. But it’s something I work on.

With a good working definition of mindfulness set in place, I’d like to take a look at the questions I posed. What I want to do in this post – you’ll notice the title is Virtual Presence – is move beyond the idea of how to get students to stop screwing around online during class and instead think about the issues of mindfulness and technology in terms of how do we (as teachers) stay present and then how do we help our students do the same.

What Does it Mean to be Present both Virtually and In Person?

I’d like to start off by considering what it means to be present virtually. You might teach an online class, or (like me) you might find yourself teaching a blended/hybrid class. In these cases, students are expected to maintain some sort of virtual presence and so are we as teachers. What does this presence look like and what does it mean to stay in the moment?

As Nichtern stated, there is a constant back and forth for our attention between the physical and the virtual reality. As I write this, my attention could be pulled away from any number of things. And we might determine that some of those “things” are more valid than others. My dog standing by the door needing a walk was definitely a valid pull out of this virtual space and into the physical one.

On the flip side, one could be present physically in a classroom – as a student or a teacher – and have any number of virtual distractions attempting to pull your attention out of the physical. I recently bought a fitness watch that would buzz whenever I had a twitter alert. It constantly snapped me both from the physical into the virtual and from one virtual task (such as writing a blog post) into a different one. I turned off notifications because the distractions were interfering with my work and in no way beneficial. But I give the example to show that it is also possible to be tugged across virtual experiences just like your attention could be tugged across physical ones (you want to pay attention to a class discussion but you also want to have a side conversation with your friend).

So being virtually present means doing all of what I outlined before I started this section: paying attention on purpose, within the present moment, and in a non-judgmental manner. So whatever space we are in, these are some basic guidelines to be attuned to. The thing is, it’s not an either/or situation. As my dog demonstrated to me, I could choose to stay in the virtual – and not walk her – but there would be consequences for me that I would not enjoy. So to some extent there is always a dance. We have to figure out how to bound this dance to some degree – like when I turned off watch notifications – but this is something we each have to figure out on our own.  I can encourage my students to engage in mindfulness, and we can even discuss it, but I am not about to quantify it for them.

How Do We Use Technology in Our Teaching Mindfully?

Technology pushes and pulls us in and out of physical reality. And yet, for most of us, there is a need to us it. I will admit that I can get distracted when shown a new technological tool that I *might* be able to use in my teaching. But I’ve gotten better at staying focused. It’s fine to get distracted by a piece of technology at first – to think, “Oh – look at this shiny new thing. I wonder if I can use it in one of my courses?” – but then it’s time to settle down and consider if it can REALLY be used.

When I think about using technology mindfully in my teaching, I generally start with examining how a tool can be used to help or enhance learning. I also consider how it might be used to completely redefine what we are doing in my courses. As basic as it sounds, I love tools like Twitter because my students can keep talking to each other throughout the week. It changes the dynamic of what it means to be a student and a teacher. It’s not just about showing up for class once a week and then wandering off until next time. We can start to use technology to think about regular, sustained engagement and what that looks like.

And this is where the mindfulness really starts to kick in.

Because we all know to not use a tool for the sake of using a tool. We all know to evaluate how the tool might connect to learning. But the interesting thing about technological tools is that they can transform learning in ways that push us to be mindful in different ways as well. As we use a tool, learning can start to look different. In my twitter example, I started to see what it meant for students to engage in interactions between sessions. But then I had to start to be mindful about what it meant to engage. What did I want to encourage in my students and in myself as an instructor? This is where I believe mindfulness starts to get really interesting in our teaching.

How Can We Help Students Engage in Technology Mindfully?

Like any of us, our students will operate along a continuum of how mindfully they engage with technological tools required in our class as well as the general push and pull between the digital and the physical. I do think that how we set up experiences for students, and the guidelines we use to frame them, can contribute or inhibit how mindful they are being.

For example, in the spring of 2016 I worked to think about how to use twitter chats with my students.  The first time I did this I was focused on how many times a person tweeted. This encouraged students to be mindful of the total number of tweets they produced during a week and probably not so mindful about how they interacted with others. And I can’t blame them. I directed them to be mindful about quantity.

So I changed it up. The next time, I still had a focus – though greatly diminished – on quantity but now I was trying to communicate to students that I wanted them to engaged in sustained and interactive participation during the week. But it still came down to me counting people’s tweets. Things got better, but the focus on quantity was still higher than I liked.

In about a month, I am trying this again with a more focused effort on quality (I think). I’m also not going to be counting anyone’s tweets. While I do try to help students think about quantity (because they will want to know something about this which is fair), I have shifted to having them demonstrate how they think their participation is going. Ultimately, they do not get points for participation in and of itself. They get points for examining and reflecting on their participation and considering what they like about it and what they want to do differently.

Whew. I think I might have something decent in place. Finally.

Mindfulness is an Ongoing Process

The twitter example shows how I had to work to get an experience for my students to a place I was happy with and that supported the things I wanted it to support. The first time I tried twitter chats I  was very mindful about what I was doing. However, in practice I started to see where it all fell apart and did not support what I wanted it to.

So I refined it.

And then I refined it some more.

But because I was always mindful about what I was doing, and because I was willing to examine and refine an experience, each iteration got me closer to what I was aiming for. Ultimately, I want my students to be mindful about their interactions when using twitter. However, they are in a class, and they are receiving a grade. Therefore, the structures I put in place will guide them to be mindful about particular things. This might mean they ignore or do less of the things I want because of the very structures I put in place.

Sometimes, I am responsible for a lack of mindfulness in particular areas from my students.

I am looking forward to seeing how this newest version of my twitter chat assignment shapes students into being mindful and engaging with each other.

One Year Ago Today

Two Years Ago Today



One thought on “Virtual Presence

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