Beyond Social Presence: Facelessness and the Ethics of Asynchronous Online Education

Ellen Rose
2017 McGill Journal of Education  
In this position paper, I argue that a focus on achieving and increasing social presence in online courses tends to derail a consideration of the ethical implications and dimensions of the essential facelessness of asynchronous education. Drawing upon the work of Emmanuel Levinas and Nel Noddings, who contended that the face is the basis of caring, ethical relations, I explore what it means for human relations, education, and society in general that learners increasingly come face-to-face with
more » ... creens rather than with embodied, different others. AU-DELÀ DE LA PRÉSENCE SOCIALE : L'ANONYMAT ET L'ÉTHIQUE DE LA FORMATION EN LIGNE ASYNCHRONE RÉSUMÉ. Dans cet article, je prends position et soutiens que la volonté de mettre en place et d'augmenter la présence sociale dans les cours en ligne a tendance à nuire à une prise en compte des implications et dimensions éthiques de l'anonymat, lequel est inhérent à la formation à distance asynchrone. Pour ce faire, je me base sur les travaux d'Emmanuel Levinas et Nel Noddings, qui allèguent que le visage est à la base de relations éthiques et bienveillantes. J'explore la portée de ce concept en termes de relations humaines, d'éducation et de société en général, dans un contexte où les apprenants sont de plus en plus en relation avec des écrans plutôt qu'avec d'autres êtres humains. In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan (1964) contended that every technological extension entails a concomitant "amputation." He offered the example of the wheel, which, while it extends the human foot, enabling us to get around much more quickly, also amputates it, in the sense that the foot on the gas or bicycle pedal is no longer being used "to perform its basic function of walking" (Gordon, 1997, p. 203). Rose 18 REVUE DES SCIENCES DE L'ÉDUCATION DE McGILL • VOL. 52 N O 1 HIVER 2017 McLuhan's theory is also borne out in a consideration of asynchronous elearning. Learning management systems (LMSs), which are digital platforms for the delivery of online instruction, extend the bodies of teachers and learners into hyperspacial learning environments; at the same time, however, LMSs "amputate" teachers' and learners' faces, which, in these virtual environments, no longer play a role in constructing and sustaining human identity and relationality. Thus, teachers and learners engage with others who are faceless, known only as names associated with tiny photos that appear beside their discussion posts. The fundamental facelessness of mediated exchanges has been a concern of communications scholars since the emergence of interest in nonverbal communication in the 1970s, and that concern was amplified with the subsequent burgeoning of research in computer-mediated communications (CMC) that began in the late 1980s. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to review that vast literature, it is worth noting that, after several decades of study, there is general agreement that face-to-face and mediated interactions are significantly different, but precisely what facelessness means for human communications is far from being settled. Certainly, the issue remains unresolved in the literature of educational communications and technology, where studies comparing pedagogy, participation, and learner satisfaction in online and face-to-face courses produce mixed results. As Bikowski (2007) observed, inconsistent findings suggest a need for "more research" (p. 139) on the importance of face-to-face contact for relationshipand community-building.
doi:10.7202/1040802ar fatcat:dpyik3dcizaeplk7nd364wrshq