Alone Together: In the Classroom

The 2011 publication of MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together challenged reader perceptions on the more isolationist mechanisms behind technology seemingly delegated to keeping people connected. “Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. ‘Digital connections’ may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other,” she muses in the intro, echoing the collective concern scientists, educators, and the general public hold in regards to the rapidly growing role machines play in daily life.

Her major thesis should ring familiar to most individuals living in plugged-in societies these days. For as advanced as our technologies have grown, the ones earmarked for connectivity between people can’t serve entirely as a “substitute for face-to-face contact.” As we learn the ins and outs of integrating these digital shortcuts into our lives, some unique psychological phenomena emerge, both problematic, and positive. Occupying virtual and real spaces enables us to at once build connections with one another, while simultaneously fostering an over-reliance on our equipment at the expense of personal contact. This certainly opens up new opportunities and fosters interpersonal relationships otherwise inaccessible to us, but we also face a serious risk of losing sight of our inherent humanity “” a rather disconcerting prospect when you consider how more and more generations grow up both socialized and schooled via interactive screens.


Online Classrooms

Online courses pushed the education sector toward a more democratized, accessible structure. Their comparatively low cost and significantly broader reach have earned them a permanent spot in college and university (less so high school and lower, though they are not unheard-of) offerings around the world. But while Internet-based classes “” even full degrees “” deserve lauds for bringing more students towards higher education, they do have their own isolationist elements. For one thing, they pose a higher risk of placing more stress on language-minority and lower-performing participants. Unlike traditional classrooms where enrollees enjoy faster, face-to-face access to professors and peers who could help them bolster their grades, the online equivalent leaves them at the mercy of e-mail waits and networking issues. They lack the immediate outreach, in some ways leaving them more alone, stranded, and reluctant to ask for assistance than they would be in a more comfortable, familiar, and “” dare we say “” human environment.


Since the M in MOOC stands for “massive,” the benefits and limitations of their smaller predecessors (regular online courses, sometimes open, sometimes not) amplify. Because these classes involve rosters numbering in the hundreds, enrollees wind up unable to consult with their professors on a regular basis. The more enterprising draw inspiration from the edupunk movement and cobble together their own online study groups. Udacity students famously organized events through in over 470 cities worldwide, either for educational or recreational intent. At American University, the nationally renowned Social Media Club meets online and off in the interest of researching the interplay between man and machine. From there, they launched the Social Media in Education Project, whose goals revolve around promoting media literacy in mainstream and online classrooms. In both these instances, participants drew something healthy, human, and traditionally sociable from the sometimes alienating environment of Internet facelessness.

Education websites and teachers’ forums already appear to almost endlessly exchange strategies for infusing social media into curricula. Seeing as how Twitter integration might very well improve grades and knowledge retention, there certainly exists compelling reasons to keep experimenting. But, as both Turkle and Amber Case point out, the resulting cognitive dissonance might lead to some serious mental health and identity issues that need addressing. Alone Together features an interview with a 16-year-old girl named Marcia, who sighs over how overwhelming her online life has grown, and admittedly wields the Internet as a tool for harassing her classmates. Conversely, the relative anonymity of virtual learning spaces actually empowers some individuals who might otherwise succumb to crippling shyness if asked to pipe up in person. Confidence which could very well carry over into face-to-face interactions over time.

Virtual Reality Builds Confidence

Turkle’s inquiries into Second Life offered up examples illustrating how innovations whose main purpose involves bringing people together simultaneously embody the disparate concepts of connectivity and loneliness. Some professors prefer hosting their online classes through the site as opposed to rolling with Blackboard or another platform. Participation involves full customizing an avatar and logging into the site, interacting with the other digital bodies fellow students inhabit. Second Life could be considered slightly more social than the average Internet-based course, in that there is some “human” component to their meetings “” users interact through virtual bodies rather than text. But an added layer (or several) of idealism compromises their complete honesty with one another. Avatars can look like anything or anyone, and participants often put their fantasy selves forward rather than their actual selves.

Defenders of this strategy believe a personalized shell allows them to better connect with varying spaces at their own comfort levels, learning more about their perspectives and places in relation to others in the process. To some, this means driving around “an avatar that is sexy, chic, and buff,” presenting themselves as they wish to be rather than as they are. You don’t exactly need more than a passing familiarity with psychology to realize the potential for mental havoc if the delineation between the real and the false begins dissolving. But where Second Life might potentially damage, it wields the ability to heal as well. “The crossover effect,” as chronicled in Alone Together, provides a safe simulation of reality where users grow more and more accustomed to scenarios they find challenging or intimidating. Turkle spoke with individuals who practiced coming out, came to terms with prosthetic limbs, and conquered their anxiety within Second Life. From there, they applied the very same methods utilized online to real-world settings, expressing relief over practicing beforehand. And this very same technique works when encouraging introverted kids and adults to open up, express themselves, and get to know their peers. Anecdotes support the strategy. Marquette studies agree. Because online classrooms provide cost- and time-effective options, advocates typically focus on these benefits when promoting or defending them “” but they tend to overlook how exposure to Internet-based environs can change the very lives of the shy and nervous. It stands to reason that, in some ways, these individuals gain the most from education behind the small screen.

Promoting Digital Literacy for a Balanced Education

Turkle’s take on socially-enabling innovations might veer more into the negative but in reality they frequently deliver on their promise to keep people together. In some ways, such as empowering the cripplingly shy, they offer up some unexpected, though not unwelcome, psychosocial benefits previously unavailable to humanity. Consenting to an all-out media fast would deny classrooms and individuals exceptionally valuable tools for spreading information quickly, not to mention unfairly penalizing students for whom online options prove the snuggest fit for their education careers. A viable solution to purging the antisocial and isolationist elements would not involve stripping the curricula of the technology enabling them. Rather, it might shape itself more like AU’s Social Media Club, where users build up a heightened awareness of what the technology entails, learning to respect its potential and navigate its limitations. Promoting digital literacy only serves as one component of the overarching solution, though. Both in the classroom and beyond, moderation and self-control mean the difference between healthy socializing and what ska punk outfit The Impossibles mourn as “being in a crowded room and feeling all alone.” Finding the right balance involves hits and misses, and varies from user to user. Once they strike the aforementioned paydirt, the effort to establish the healthiest middle ground between real life and the digital one will probably save quite a bit on therapist bills. That is not a bad thing.

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