The Teacher

6/24/2019 - Monocle Journal

“I’m going to teach English in Asia” has long been the mantra of the newly graduated university student with few immediate job prospects, willing to brave the challenges of working in a foreign country. For those less thrilled at the prospect of leaving their homes and venturing out alone, the advent of online learning has provided a welcome alternative that enables teachers to conduct lessons with far-away learners in any corner of the globe with a reasonably stable internet connection. However, despite the convenience of such an arrangement for both learners and teachers, high dropout rates in online courses have been observed by researchers, and the reason for this is simple: the need for human contact. In many ways online learning is simply the modern reincarnation of William Smith’s TV mathematics lessons, which provided after-school tutoring for learners in South Africa during the 1990s. Learners could call in to the programme with maths problems that they were struggling with and watch low-grade close-ups on their box TVs of his coloured markers squeaking across a whiteboard as he explained how to solve the equations. Online learning offers many benefits: lessons can be arranged at times that best suit both parties and a range of virtual teaching aids can be used to enhance learner interest and understanding. Teachers can, moreover, make pre-recorded lessons accessible to a whole class of learners, with the added benefit that they can re-watch the videos at a later stage to clarify any misunderstandings, or to fill in any gaps in their notes. Alternatively, teachers can engage in one-on-one teaching using video calling, altering the pace of the lesson to suit each individual learner and attend directly to any questions they  may have.

The positives of this teaching arrangement seem obvious when compared to the bustling disorder of a traditional classroom and yet, there are many who remain wary of it, considering it to be a second-rate form of learning – a last resort if learners and teachers cannot occupy the same physical space. Studies have found that social presence – the degree to which a person is perceived to be “real” – is a key determinant of learner success in online learning. This highlights the importance of “real” interactions for developing a rapport between teachers and students and keeping learners engaged with the learning process.

Similarly, although smart technology makes working from home – or from a café, hotel, or airport – entirely plausible in a variety of industries, big businesses are spending significant time and money redesigning their offices to optimise the “employee experience”. Rather than abandoning the idea entirely of having a physical space that employees come to each day to do their work and relying solely on a network of texts, calls, emails and Skype interactions to conduct meetings and facilitate team-based work, companies have instead increased their focus on providing a space that employees will want to be in. Common elements of the modern ergonomic office include a mix of areas for individual and team work, well-stocked kitchens, canteens with comfortable seating, multiple plug points, large windows to provide views and natural light, and vibrant art. For all the convenience that modern technologies allow when it comes to communication – and despite the savings in rent and ancillaries that could be achieved by abandoning physical office spaces – face-to-face interaction continues to be so revered in the modern working world that companies are willingly spending to ensure that it remains the dominant form of workplace communication.

And for good reason. Attempts by virtual teams to collaborate on business initiatives using tools such as video conferencing have been prone to problems, with researchers observing that the inability to interact face-to-face affects the development of trust between team members. In addition, miscommunications can easily arise when people are unable to rely on non-verbal cues to interpret the words of others, and the role of a team leader to communicate clearly and mediate between members, thus, becomes more pronounced. It was also noted that virtual interactions generally prove more successful when tasks are clearly defined and straightforward to execute, with creative tasks better suited to real world interactions. A large body of literature has subsequently emerged, detailing the ways in which virtual teamwork may be enhanced, which is certainly helpful given that many organisations rely, at least in part, on the work of international teams or employees working offsite. However, as with teaching, virtual communication in business is seen as a second-rate option, with face-to-face communication still taking first prize.

Interpersonal relationships remain a crucial aspect of doing business, and face-to-face interactions are the strongest tool for enhancing these. Not only do intra- and inter-company teams rely on the formation of relationships to collaborate effectively, but businesses also rely on them to secure contracts in the first place. Daily informal office interactions at the infamous water cooler also play an obvious role in promoting camaraderie between employees of a company, and for many, the workplace is a crucial space for forming friendships that reach far beyond the confines of work. Maintaining a physical space where customers can interact with company representatives also remains central to ensuring trust in a brand, evidenced by the ongoing existence of bank branches and brick-and-mortar retailers, despite the success of online giants such as Amazon.

Researchers have also pointed out that at present, companies may have as many as five different generations working for them and whilst younger employees may use new technologies instinctively, for many older employees these devices can be threatening in their unfamiliarity. But even as new communication technologies become more ubiquitous in our working lives, it is unlikely that they will ever completely eclipse face-to-face contact as the preferred way of doing business. We already live in a world where technology has made it possible to connect with almost anyone, no matter how far apart we may be. And yet, business travellers continue to fill up the seats of major airlines on a daily basis, crossing countries and even continents to attend conferences and meetings, and to connect with the people who work for and with them.


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