‘Is it real? Is it virtual? Why does it matter? Part I’

By Phil Youngblood

“Is it live or is it Memorex?”

That was a long-running and effective advertisement by Memorex, a recordable media company and now a brand of Imation, that featured a song or music effecting physical objects, such as a high note breaking a glass, with that tagline.

The ad was about the quality of their product, but could also imply if you cannot tell the difference, then does it really matter?

This year I am writing a series of articles about virtual environments, which I have defined as any technology that enables us to communicate other than face-to-face, in-person. In this article I get to the heart of the matter – what does it mean to be face-to-face and why does it matter?

I am hoping my article might provoke your response or discussion because I am heading an effort to write a guide for teachers at the University of the Incarnate Word about the use of virtual technology for education and I need your opinion. During our first School of Media and Design meeting this year, the topic happened to come up and it led to a heated discussion about the relative merits of teaching in a traditional face-to-face environment as opposed to using virtual technologies.

Last spring I was a member of a UIW committee to regulate the use of virtual technology in place of Main Campus face-to-face class sessions and the majority consensus that resulted from another heated discussion was that face-to-face could only mean the situation where people were physically near one another. I was of the minority opinion that it really does not matter if you cannot tell the difference or the difference does not matter for what you are doing, which is why I differentiate between “face-to-face” and “face-to-face, in-person.” I can understand the rationale behind opposing viewpoints, but I also want to understand why this topic seems to have an emotional aspect whenever I hear it discussed.

In this Part I article I want to share some of the reasons people give for why and when face-to-face is more appropriate than virtual and suggest some underlying concepts behind why this topic seems to elicit the emotional reactions that I frequently experience when I hear it discussed. A cursory look at literature ranging from student testimonials to CIO White Papers reveals to me that “looking someone in the eye” helps to build trust and minimizes miscommunication. Writers refer to “honest face-to-face communication” and to its “warmth.” They seem to prefer face-to-face communication as a means to convey appreciation (having enough respect or consideration to see someone face-to-face) and as the only acceptable means to provide someone with serious feedback or criticism and when assigning important tasks or resolving conflicts among people.

Still others harken back to the days when neighbors actually talked with each other (people still do in certain neighborhoods like where I live) and lament that society is in decline because of virtual communication (which I feel is a convenient excuse for a condition that virtual communication did not cause). Some point to the healthy (mental and social) aspects associated with human contact (in the proximal and communicative sense). Others point to the “impersonal” nature of virtual communications and the “trivial relationships” that are established virtually vs. the “real” ones that face-to-face interaction can foster. Still others point to the higher likelihood for more caustic comments and extreme reactions that might not be experienced in face-to-face interactions. Malcolm Gladweel in “The Tipping Point” points out that much of communication is non-verbal and that messages and emotion can be conveyed without words in face-to-face communication. Another argument is that in face-to-face communication participants tend more towards self-control than virtual communication.

This is a quick first look at some of the arguments on the topic. How they and other opinions and research and concepts on this topic pertain to education will be the focus of my next article.

This is my fifth article in this series. I have written about the impact of social media, thinking and writing in 140 characters or less, what I have learned from live and virtual birds. As always, I invite your feedback and dialogue. I particularly invite discussion and opinion on this topic.

E-mail Youngblood, head of the Computer Information Systems program, at youngblo@uiwtx.edu

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