Textual Meditations – Volume I

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts..

We start this post with a quote from William Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It“, which conjures up the image of acting a part in front of others. This will become more apparent later on in the post. Week 3 starts off the first “real” readings for the course; principally, Feenberg’s (1989) text. It’s an interesting, if somewhat archaic, article that occasionally reads like a social science essay with the names of Goffman (a favourite of mine!) and Derrida being bandied around. Feenberg starts off his argument by saying that meeting in our culture are best conducted face-to-face.

This physical presence is supposed to be the guarantor of authenticity: you can look your interlocutor in the eye and search for tacit signs of truthfulness or falsehood, where context and tone permit a subtler interpretation of the spoken word.

What about those who can’t speak and rely on sign language? As Sian Bayne points out during the Skype instant messaging discussion (which, incidently was enormous fun) this evening: signers have a “physical presence“. Indeed they do, and whilst sign language is a very expressive language, it cannot delineate the nuances of the spoken word in terms of tone – though this may be achieved by the strength of the expression and sign. Feenberg introduces the notion of “communication anxiety” with a line that particularly resonated with me:

Communicating on-line involves a minor but real personal risk, and a response – any response – is generally interpreted as a success while silence means failure.

How many times have I been on MSN Messenger talking to someone, for them to suddenly stop talking for a while, and there’s me panicking that I might have said something to upset them? Well, plenty enough thank you! When they do finally get back to me, it turns out their modem has timed out (don’t you just love it??) or they have been on the phone to someone (what?? remember me??).

The “cold medium” (Wegerif, 1998) of online communication precipitates what McInnerney and Roberts (2004) describes as “isolation“; without that instant feedback, without that acknowledgement, we feel unnerved and isolated, a bit like walking in thick fog at night.

Fear not, Salmon (2002) offers a solution to this rather thorny isolation problem with her “5 steps” to successfully learning online; and in doing so, building a community of learners who can support each other along the way. Salmon’s approach is enormously popular with educators and course developers alike; and is probably the most (and overly) used model in Higher Education today. Not everyone is happy with this model; and with a just a whiff of handbags at dawn; Pam Moule (2007) steps up to the plate to “challenge” Gilly Salmon. Moule claims that Salmon’s model “neglects” the variety of e-learning approaches that are available as well as the range of learning theories that are now around. She cites a number of studies that have demonstrated where this model fall down, namely: that it doesn’t support a blended approach very well (Chowcat, 2005); it failed to take in the different learning styles (Lisewski & Joyce 2003); dispute over achieveable levels of socialisation (Jones & Peachy, 2005); and so on. The debate continues.

Feenberg comes on to the “management of identity” (identity is an interest of mine) which includes some quotes from Erving Goffman, cue “As You Like It“. This is probably the weakest and least coherent argument in Feenberg’s essay. As I suggested in the instant messaging chat this evening; Feenberg would have been better off using Goffman’s arguments that within Western society an organised group of individuals perform in one of two ways: formal and informal. When the group is “backstage”, they tend to let their “masks slip”, they are more informal and relaxed towards each other, perhaps using first name, having a joke, or smoking, etc. But when the group is “on stage”, the masks are put back on, and a more formal and respectful air is adopted towards another group of people. We can take these theatrical metaphors of “backstage” to mean online and for “on stage” to mean offline, i.e. face-to-face.

McInnerney & Roberts (2004) continue this theatrical theme by introducing a “forming stage” which they describe as “a warm up period, designed to assist the formation of a ‘sense of community’“. During this period, participants would use the informal setting to get to know each others writing styles, online personalities and to learn how to develop a “digital identity” that is unique and recognisable to them.

And so ends “Volume 1” of my week 3 reflections…until next time…well, tomorrow actually!


Feenberg, A., (1989). The written world: On the the theory and practice of computer conferencing. In: Mason, R. & Kaye, A. (eds.). Mindweave: communication, computers and distance learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press. pp. 22-39.

Goffman, E., (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin Books.

Herring, S., (2004). Slouching towards the ordinary: current trends in computer-mediated communication. New Media & Society, 6(1), 26-36.

Kreijns, K., Kirschner, P.A. & Jochems, W., (2003). Identifying the pitfalls for social interaction in computer-supported collaborative learning environments: a review of the research. Computers in Human Behavior, 19, 335-353.

McInnerney, J.M. & Roberts, T.S., (2004). Online Learning Social Interaction and the Creation of a Sense of Community. Educational Technology & Society, 7(3), 73-81.

Moule, P., (2007). Challenging the five-stage model for e-learning: a new approach. ALT-J: Research in Teaching and Learning, 15(1), 37-50.

Salmon, G., (2002). e-tivities: the key to active online learning. London: RoutledgeFalmer

Wegerif, R., (1998). The Social Dimensions of Asynchronous Learning Environments. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 2(1).