Discussions over the last three months regarding the costs and benefits of face-to-face (F2F) versus online teaching and learning have been ubiquitous. Rigorously assessing these teaching modalities should occur elsewhere, but personal experience and reflection might have modest value.
About two weeks ago—not sure if it was a result of COVID-19, too much television, or something else—a dormant Facebook account, a decade silent, was enlivened. One Facebook message, of hundreds, was from a student from the early 1980s. You remember, when no one talked on a cell phone. There were no iPads, laptops or other devices used in the classroom except Sony Walkmans. Getting students to engage with me F2F while competing with Van Halen or AC/DC was a challenge.
We were three feet apart standing at a drawing board—literally face to face. I knew where people were from, what sports they liked, if they liked sports at all, and many other aspects of their lives. This one-on-one relationship is largely unavailable in many teaching settings, then or now. Tutorial instruction, as occurs in design studies, is time consumptive and expensive, but it’s personal. Regardless of modality, teaching effectiveness is difficult to gauge. Teachers wonder whether or not a lightbulb ever goes on for a student. And then, nearly 40 years later, a Facebook message pops up that, in part, looks like this:
Dr. Wendler, How refreshing to hear your voice in your writing on your website. Congratulations on your success and positive impact that you have made throughout your journey.
I know, because I am a recipient of your tremendous humanity. I can still picture my twenty-year-old self, sitting in your class. … Excited to catch up with you. I was in my sophomore year at Texas A&M. Beyond your role as my professor and mentor, I remember you most as my friend. We used to talk about faith in such practical terms. You gave me your faculty ticket to football games, but never basketball, because you loved the sport so.
I stopped practicing design over fifteen years ago as writing took over my time. … I am wrapping up a series of books about the New Testament. Specifically, a revival of the main books into sequential order based on the patterns of Jesus’ actions and words. The process of that book started with writing devotionals for my children and step-children. Before I published the series, I wrote a book to them. When The Future Became Now: Expanding Love and Respect as Cultures Collide released without promotion, last September. That book weaves my personal journey into the eight questions every human confronts. Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, and the conditionals If and Which. … You influenced my life more than I can say here or in my book.
I share this humbly as an example of teacher-student interaction. Modality impacts interaction, but not its intensity or value.
Meaningful personal interaction is difficult for a teacher who may have 25 students in a lecture class. The investment of time in personal communication is essential in an effective learning organization, valuable without question. The Twitterverse emboldens communication for shock value, not personal enlightenment. Don’t trust my assessment. Read the Tweets.
Digital pen-palmenship is the reality of excellent teaching in online environments, an essential part of the workload. Appropriately and personally engaging students and helping them know themselves is one of the reasons that powerful online instruction is so time consuming for faculty. Not Snapchatting, Tweeting or Facebooking, instead, communication embodying searching processes that powerfully and productively pry into personal perspective, point of view and predilection. Catherine the Great and Voltaire; Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann; Groucho Marx and T.S. Elliot—pen pals all. History is packed with peculiar pairs.
Interpersonal connectivity is critical in higher education. The transfer of cognitive processes is effectively accomplished in a digital setting, but it’s only half a loaf. To fully address the impact of learning on potential, direct, vulnerable, personal human interaction is the other half. Rarity in both settings is the unfortunate truth.
Twenty-first-century pen-palmenship will enliven the transfer of thoughts and feelings over the wire. When teachers and students become digital pen-pals, excellence follows like a shadow on a dry, thirsty land.
Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at https://walterwendler.com/.