Being present vs. online learning and teaching: A Buddhist dilemma

There is a struggle I have as a tech professor in the context of “virtual” teaching and learning.

Thich Nhat Hanh presents it this way:

“Zen Buddhism does not consider abstractions and symbols as being important. What is important is reality itself, awakening, mindfulness.”

In most online courses, we communicate mainly through symbol systems (text in particular) and primarily through asynchronous means. Wittgenstein and Baudrillard describe such systems separately and fundamentally differently.

For Wittgenstein, these symbols are the thing itself as written down. He says that we are to look at them and not to interpret. These are “pure signifiers.” In an online setting then, a student is expected to ingest only what the text says with no interpretation.

This view appears to require one to reject multiple meanings that could possibly be contained in a written utterance, which is how some of my students, especially at the Masters degree and undergraduate level, have viewed the provided texts online written by others, peer students, or myself. This is troubling for me, because I believe that the truths contained in the directions and texts presented online remain will always interpreted by the students’ past experience, knowledge constructions, and therefore specific interpretations based on these.

For Baudrillard by contrast, the symbol and the object’s value are now the same in people’s minds. For example, $1,000,000 in a bank account statement is the same in the mind and it can be used the same as if it were one million actual physical dollars, so
the utility of the symbol is excellent through this exchange of symbol and meaning in the real world. Everything is therefore interpreted by one’s brain and interpreted not as a symbol, but the thing itself.

So then, what is reality? Is it this physical space that we perceive through our senses that we share, smell, taste, and touch? Can it instead be the virtual spaces like Facebook, Blackboard, Warcraft, or any of these other spaces where we busy ourselves? I struggle with whether the virtual simulates the real world or, as importantly, stimulates our minds (cognition principles: visual, audio, etc.), sufficiently to truly allow the same quality of learning that we expect in a physical classroom setting.

A loss of physical presence is difficult in many ways we are not studying and should be. To some extent, I feel the same way about online learning that I do about hydro-fracking. We have studies neither sufficiently to determine potential harms and benefits from online learning or fracking. Both, as they are constructed today, are in their infancy. Both are poorly understood. Yet we have pushed ahead without understanding their consequences in either the short or long term for individuals. Beyond this, I struggle with what is reality and what it can be.

Is the reality in what we communicate and agree to socially regardless of physically or digital space? Is reality now mainly what we communicate, how we communicate, the identities we project, and what we agree to as a group?

What happens to our communication in digital tools that may be deformed by the limited tools we have to teach online and limit our ability to rapidly refine a learner’s understanding or mental model? What do asynchronous communications do to meaning, communication of understood realities, and learning? How does online communication enable or deform necessary learning communications?

Is reality found in the moments where we act outside of the digital space, as Joshu once admonished a young monk, to wash his bowl upon finishing his rice porridge? Is reality then to simply be mindful and to reflect on being present and to simply act?

Perhaps, I’m over thinking this. Perhaps, our field is under thinking it.


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