Rebecca Jean Emigh
UC, Los Angeles
In the time of COVID-19, tools for remote learning, exemplified by the now-ubiquitous videoconferencing platform Zoom, have gone from convenience to necessity. As faculty rushed to move classes online, they have become suddenly aware of the drawbacks and potentials of such tools. How can they be used effectively to promote learning? The format (manuscripts, books, electronic media, etc.) of information shapes the potential for knowledge.
Berger and Luckmann (1966:28) noted that face-to-face interaction is prototypical. All other types of interaction, including writing, are either remote in time or remote in space. Far from a superior form of interaction, writing must be supplemented to account for its remoteness. Historically, written formats slowly developed social procedures for authentication, including formatting devices like title pages with authors’ names and editorial oversight such as peer review. In the absence of face-to-face information about authors’ social positions and credibility, such procedures somewhat recreated oral presentations of the same information.
The internet, through digital tools like Zoom, reembodies some social information by transporting images and audio, together, over time and space. Zoom indeed may—or may not—have some features of face-to-face interaction. In Zoom, all participants appear on screen, displaying faces and some elements of social positionality. However, once the Zoom meeting gets underway, it is clear to everyone that participants are still remote in time and space. Turn taking is slow—especially if the facilitator has to unmute each participant to talk. As in face-to-face group interaction, sometimes individuals talk at the same time, but it is much more slowly sorted out on Zoom than in person. Network latency and slow internet connections sometimes result in delayed facial expressions, making it difficult to judge whether the speaker has been correctly understood. Another weird half-reembodiment is that everyone can see the eyes of all the participants, but no one has eye contact. These conservational interruptions are minor with a small group, but they make a medium- to large-sized class run awkwardly, half as fast and productive as usual. A genuine intellectual discussion is difficult. And, of course, persistent inequality limits many individuals’ access to fast, reliable internet and adequately-equipped devices that can reduce these delays and interruptions.
Another huge difference from face-to-face interaction, and one that is new historically, is that on Zoom, the participants also see themselves. Partly as a result of delayed facial images and no eye contact, but also because of the novelty of seeing ourselves while talking, we catch ourselves looking at our own squares instead of our audience. We are not sure if others are also looking at themselves or not! It’s impossible to tell without genuine eye contact. Particularly among students, however, the vision of themselves creates a panoptic space (Foucault 1979), where individuals engage in self-surveillance. In an in-person classroom setting, faculty often decry students’ sleeping or viewing electronic materials unrelated to the class content. Now, since Zoom is a highly performative space where students are visible—even to themselves—students comment that they feel pressure to look intelligent at all times. Faculty also report that students are suddenly eager to talk to their colleagues in breakout rooms when, in an actual classroom, it is often hard to promote such discussion. Of course, some of this may be because many undergraduates under stay-at-home guidelines have had limited contact outside of their household for several months! At the same time, the range of the Zoom panopticon is limited. Participants can be seen only from their shoulders upwards, eliminating the view of pajama bottoms. Similarly, participants can look quite attentive while engaging in another task just out of camera range, such as a cell phone or book (knitting is Emigh’s favorite). The only giveaway is the lower eye gaze, but students might be looking at their lecture notes! Individuals can also post background images, ranging from the mundane to the absurd, to obscure the décor of their household that might give away information about social class or racial background. Other aspects of remote course management, however, may actually heighten the panoptic character of schooling by intensifying surveillance, such as through exam proctoring tools that firewall “forbidden” resources, use students’ cameras to record them, and even deploy artificial intelligence to analyze their behavior. While in-class exam proctoring typically involves some degree of surveillance, these tools now allow direct surveillance at a level impossible to achieve by instructors and teaching assistants roaming the aisles. Far from approximating face-to-face interaction by digital means, these tools have the capacity to perfect the panoptic principle in ways that would likely be regarded as unduly intrusive if implemented in a traditional classroom, even if instructors are unlikely to scrutinize the recording of each student.
Finally, interactions remote in time and space work best when accompanied by social norms. A faculty meeting on Zoom was relatively painless, as faculty already were used to raising their hands, being on a speaking list, and adjusting their remarks based on the ensuing proceedings. They also adjusted quickly to interrupting each other and forgetting to unmute or mute themselves. The classroom is newly extending these skills and norms to students, making Zoom much more difficult. New norms previously developed around email and text, but since neither has video, they cannot mimic face-to-face interaction. In this sense, email and text are much more like manuscripts and books than Zoom. For Zoom, however, it is not yet clear whether it can mimic face-to-face interaction effectively. Instructors may need to cultivate intentionally norms that deliberately compensate for the absence of face-to-face interaction. Software development oriented around user experience and faster and more responsive hardware would help. As is clear historically, from manuscripts, books, email, and text, developing these social norms takes time.
Berger, Peter L., and Thomas Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.