The Body in Online Learning (1)

In my post on lessons learned from the CCK08 course last week I posed the question where the Body is in Connectivism, and one of the CCK08 facilitators, Steven Downes, commented and so did my PhD-supervisor, Janni Nielsen. This has inspired me to do some preliminary reflections on the Body in online learning in general. Since embodiment is a core concept in my PhD, this is something I’ll return to again and again, but I do have to start at some point …

I think Downes, Nielsen and I agree that technology can provide a perception of embodiment, and as I commented to Downes, that’s why I dare claim “that 3D representation e.g. in SL, offers a unique opportunity (especially in distance education) for users to feel part of an authentic or real context even if it is mediated through technology.”

Nielsen confronts my “to feel part of .. even if ..” phrase, which may seem illogical if you really believe that technology can provide a sense of embodiment. I guess this stems from my talks about SL. It’s my impression that 3D technology still is rather exotic to most people (even 2D!), and I think I might lose credibility if I started a talk by stating that this is real! Perhaps I underestimate my audience, but I do feel that if you’re not familiar with online behavior and haven’t been immersed in a 3D setting it may seem surreal … And I know that some people who actually are familiar with e.g. online learning do not feel the way I do.

I am very much inspired by phenomenology, and in preparation for my PhD application last summer, I revisited some of the great thinkers within that field, some of them being Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Hubert L. Dreyfus. According to Ajana (2005) perception in Merleau-Ponty’s terms is:

(…) a ‘system’ of meanings by which the phenomenological process of recognizing and ‘sensing’ objects takes place, and it is through the medium of the body that we get to ‘experience’ and ‘perceive’ the world: ‘Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive, it breathes life into it and sustains it inwardly, and with it forms a system’ (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 203).

This may be what Downes refers to, when he states that “we’re pattern recognition devices” though I’m not sure Downes would label himself as a phenomenologist.

Anyway, Dreyfus inspires me, because he is also influenced by Merleau-Ponty, but I have to say that we read and interpret Merleau-Ponty in different ways, and that forces me to reflect on my own position. In 2001 Dreyfus published the book “On the Internet”, and if I had to point to one single reason why I wanted to do a PhD on 3D-mediated teaching and learning potential this is it!

Dreyfus goes against the hype on the potentials of the Internet, and I do think that that can be quite appropriate, but I just do not agree with the majority of Dreyfus’ points and his argumentation. In the introduction Dreyfus writes:

(…) in what follows, I hope to show that, if our body goes, so does relevance, skill, reality and meaning. If that is the trade-off, the prospect of living our lives in and through the Web may not be as attractive after all. (Dreyfus, 2001:7 – my italics)

A short comment to this could be that our bodies do not go (anywhere!) when we engage in internet activities – like the heart in the organism we’re bodily grounded in the world regardless of how it presents itself to us. Furthermore I’m pretty sure that millions of Internet users find meaning and learn skills no matter how they perceive reality. But my intention in this post is not to review and comment on Dreyfus’ entire book, where he of course elaborates this and many other points.

First of all, I’m in the beginning of my research and I still lack insight and sufficient academic competencies to do so in a reputable manner, and I certainly do not want to seem disrespectful. That specific comment just triggered my research and for that I do feel appreciative to Dreyfus.

Second, other researchers have already presented arguments against the Dreyfus claims, and in this post I want to point the reader’s attention to Ray Land.

One of Dreyfus’ claims is that risk-taking is a necessary prerequisite for learning at a higher level and that especially due to the anonymous nature of online learning the learner and the teacher do not really take any risks. Land (2004) addresses this issue;

What is puzzling about Dreyfus’ analysis is how it seems to take no cognizance of the many risks to identity, confidence, emotional security and esteem that are encountered on a daily basis by participants within online learning environments.

I think both my MIL students and some of the participants in the CCK08 will recognize Land’s description, I know I do – even here as I write on my “own” blog. An interesting angle to this could be to explore Dreyfus (and Dreyfus. 1986) renowned taxonomy of learning. I do appreciate the methodic/analytical benefits of looking at the learning process this way, but I’m really not convinced that learning occurs linearly …

These will be my first public thoughts on the body in online learning – I will return…


If this caught your attention I really recommend that you read Dreyfus and the other below mentioned references :-)

Ajana, B. (2005): Disembodiment and Cyberspace: A Phenomenological Approach.

Dreyfus, H.L. (2001): On the Internet.

Land, R. (2004): Issues of Embodiment and Risk in Online Learning.

Related references:
Virtual Identity and the Cyberspace

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