Face-to-face or remote?

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, stay-at-home orders in many countries changed the way people work.  Workers and students in most internet-equipped countries (together with many school boards) quickly adopted video conferencing and webinars as a substitute for face-to-face meetings and in-classroom teaching.  In just four months, one platform (Zoom) saw its number of meeting participants rise from 10 million per day in December 2019 to over 300 million per day in April 2020.  Large increases were also reported on other platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and Cisco Webex.

Although it was often grudgingly acknowledged that online meetings “were better than nothing, I suppose”, meeting on screens rather than in-person proved to be very challenging for many participants.  Countless users complained of ‘Zoom fatigue’, suffering mental and physical exhaustion after spending multiple hours each day sitting and relating to others on screens.  Some of the problems were so pervasive that they became memes – “You’re on mute”, “How do I share my screen?”, “I think your daughter has turned on a setting that turns you into a cat”, and of course, wearing a shirt and tie above the waist but running shorts below.



Stephen Codrington teaching a Critical Thinking course online via Zoom from his home office in 2020.

There is evidence (see Karl et.al) that webinars and videoconferencing privilege high-status and more outspoken attendees in meetings and online classes, they obscure non-verbal cues and body language, and according to Gupta they disadvantage some women who find themselves interrupted and spoken over during meetings.  Moreover, it is well known that working from home (which is made possible by online meetings) removes opportunities for relationship building through impromptu meetings and the creative solutions that often arise from chance encounters.

Despite the inherent shortcomings of the format (often exacerbated by lousy wi-fi connections), many employers (including some school boards) see financial benefits in the switch to remote meetings.  Travel, office and workspace costs are reduced or shifted onto employees, students or clients, and the need for expensive real estate is reduced.  Leaders of some schools and workplaces speak glowingly of the benefits and intimate that the changes should and/or might become permanent.

One example of this that I know about is a tertiary institution in Australia that has recently converted all its teacher training programs from face-to-face lectures and tutorials into online reading and assignments supplemented by a single two-hour online Zoom class once per fortnight.  Clearly, the diverse role modelling and personal interaction that used to be experienced by these aspiring teachers is now impossible, a sad consequence of society’s new capacity to cut staffing costs through greater use of remote technology.

If the aim of accessing screens for work or study was simply to soak up content in the form of data and information, then I think the platform could work well PRESUMING (in a pandemic context) that some content is better than no content.  However, once we try to convince ourselves that we are genuinely engaging with people or authentically communicating with others by means of these artificial technologies, then we are deceiving ourselves.  

In answer to a question at last year’s Simone Weil Lecture, the ethicist Scott Stevens described screens as a ‘moral prophylactic’ in that they give us the sense that we are getting close to other people while not getting close enough to challenge us or cause any danger to us.  Engaging with others on screens, he suggests, gives the illusion of doing something meaningful when we are actually not doing anything that is significantly meaningful at all.

Having conducted many online workshops, lectures and meetings during the COVID pandemic, I now refuse to teach or lead workshops via platforms such as Zoom because the experience is so deficient compared with face-to-face encounters – although I do still reluctantly agree to chair and participate in board and committee meetings remotely. When I organise or host such meetings, there are some simple rules I expect:

Why am I now reluctant to host workshops or teach remotely online?  The simple answer is that I believe it is a sub-optimal way of interacting and therefore shows disdain for the time and effort spent by the participants.  The more complex answer explains why I believe this is so, and why it is important for board meetings and gatherings of school leaders to be conducted in person wherever possible.

Everyone knows the impact of being in the presence of another person.  We know that the presence of the other person is indispensable to whatever it is – the words, the ideas, the feelings – that are passing between the two of you.  We know this because we are human beings who have inherited the cumulative sum of hundreds of generations of social skills.

Although some people are better at this than others, we all know and understand body language - the various forms of communication that pass over somebody’s face, the uncomfortable twitches or the words that are never uttered.  We recognise the flash of recognition in somebody’s eyes that tells us ‘I understood what you just said’.  We know the tiny wince of pain, barely suppressed, that says “you’re transgressing onto sensitive territory”.  We know the ways that hurt can be registered without those words being spoken.

In an age of growing reliance upon screens for remote communications, many people seem to have come to the point of seeing close personal proximity as an annoyance or a nuisance.  Perhaps this stems from a sense that when you are in the presence of another person, greater expectations and demands are placed upon us.

The psychoanalyst and media scholar Sherry Turkle gave a powerful example of this phenomenon in her 2016 book called “Reclaiming Conversation”.   She described a crisis she was having with her students at MIT.  She described how she would write to her students posing a question, asking them to make an appointment to come and see her so they could discuss it.  She found that the students would make up every possible excuse so they could never meet, preferring instead to communicate exclusively through e-mail.

Turkle realised that what was terrifying her students was the vulnerability of having to be in the physical presence of another person and therefore possibly being exposed as ‘not quite their best selves’.  When communication is by e-mail, the students can edit, manicure, and dress up their ideas up so they are presenting the very best version of themselves, probably appearing far more articulate than they really are in person.  Having come to this realisation, Sherry Turkle insisted “it’s the office or nothing”.

This is the same rationale I have for “it’s face-to-face, or it’s nothing”.  Effective outcomes demand nothing less.

We now exist in an age of screens.  Although I appreciate the benefits, I think we are worse off overall for it.  The more that teaching takes place on screens rather than face-to-face, the more we are losing something incalculable.  Of course, the genie is out of the bottle, but in acknowledging that, I believe we should never use remote on-screen learning as a substitute for being in the physical presence of others.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

References:

Gupta AH (2020) It’s not just you: In online meetings, many women can’t get a word in. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/14/ us/zoom-meetings-gender.html.

Karl KA, Peluchette JV & Aghakhani N (2022) Virtual Work Meetings During the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Good, Bad, and Ugly. Small Group Research, 53(3): 343-365.

Stephens, S (2022) ‘We do not breathe well’: Tending the moral conditions of our common life, The Simone Weil Lecture on Human Value, Melbourne: ACU. https://www.acu.edu.au/about-acu/events/2022/november/annual-simone-weil-lecture.

Turkle, S (2016) Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, New York: Penguin Random House.

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