Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine / Volume 1, Number 8/ December 1, 1994 / Page 12


The Virtualization of Local Life:
A Tale of Two Teachers

by Stephen Doheny-Farina (

Teacher 1: Amid the leafy campus

A good friend of mine is a physics teacher at one of the most exclusive private prep schools in the Northeast. He meets classes of 8 and 10 students in well-equipped labs and comfortable classrooms six days a week. He and his family eat meals with his students on a regular basis and he monitors a dormitory a couple of evenings every week. He works hard and gets to know each of his students quite well. At the end of each semester he is ready to collapse and sleep for days. He loves his job but he refers to himself as a servant to the brilliant children of the super-rich.

Teacher 2: Amid the flicker of the screen

Every Thursday night I sit down to the computer around 7:30 PM eastern standard time and connect via modem to Diversity University MOO, a multi-user dimension designed for use by teachers and their students. I am one of three faculty who organized and participate in a weekly discussion group with fourteen graduate students of rhetoric. The purpose of each week's session is to analyze and discuss a different reading that somehow relates to issues of rhetoric, community, and cyberspace. The participants all connect to DU MOO from a variety of locations: Penn State, Rensselaer, Carnegie Mellon, North Carolina State, Michigan Tech, University of Minnesota, and Clarkson University.

Bringing together remote participants for synchronous discussion is not the only type of educational opportunity enabled by DU. Some teachers have their regular (physically located) classes connect to DU for in-class exercises/experiences. Others use DU as "a place" where teachers can hold office hours; students can connect to the MOO and interact in real time with the teacher without having to actually visit the teacher's physical office.

DU is not the first of its kind nor is the concept of virtual schools and distance learning new. DU does represent an interesting step, however. It offers a relatively cheap and potentially wide-access availability of such services. That is, as Internet access expands, MOO access expands with it because right now enterprises like DU require nothing more than net access and the telnet capabilities. Teachers nor students need to have access to expensive video conferencing centers; most could connect from their homes via modem.

This is a good thing, right? We should welcome developments such as these, shouldn't we? Well, believe it or not these questions may be irrelevant because whether or not these enterprises are effective, they will continue to expand until most of the children in the world who have access to education will be educated via virtual schools. Very few will experience anything close to the intensity of my friend's face-to-face prep school environment. No one yet knows if this is a good idea or a bad idea, but it will happen nonetheless. Economics will demand it. At least that is the message of John Tiffin, author of In Search of the Virtual Class: Education in an Informal Society. Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Tiffin speak at an International Council on Distance Education conference in Saratoga Springs, NY.

The Virtual Class

Tiffin began by noting that everyday, billions of children ride cars, buses, bicycles, or trains to school. This mass transfer of students to central schools via the tools of the industrial age is giving way to the mass transfer of students to schools via the tools of the information age. Given the trends in world demographics, the need for distance education and virtual classrooms will expand dramatically. We must ask: how can the essential factors for teaching and learning available in a physical space classroom be adapted to and improved upon in virtual classrooms?

To put this in CMC terms, traditional, physical space classrooms offer the equivalent of wide bandwidth experiences. Students can interact in real time--using natural stereo sound and full motion vision--with all of the other people involved in the event. With current technologies, this is difficult to simulate. Right now, video conferencing, virtual reality, and Internet-based synchronous communication devices (IRC or MUDs) are all either unwieldy, expensive, highly limited, or under-developed to match the task. Tiffin likens our current abilities to the first automobiles; while they gave one the feeling of auto travel, they were largely impractical, barely useable, and revolutionary all at the same time. So it is with our current communication technologies. But the necessary developments, either via satellite, cable, or telecommunications are coming.

The future, says Tiffin, will be very different for the education providers. We are near the beginning of the internationalization and large-scale commercialization of education. There will be trade wars among education providers, driving down prices and heightening competition. Distance education will become the norm, the least expensive way to deliver the education product, while face-to-face teaching will be so expensive that it will become something only for the well-to-do. Only schools like my friend's prep school of the super-rich will provide full service face-to-face education. Tiffin compares this, again, to the transition from horse to automobile. When that transition was under way, horses were far less expensive to buy and maintain than were autos. Eventually, the automobile became affordable on a large scale and horses became more expensive to own and maintain. Now, in fact, we associate horses with money: "the horsey set."

During questions after his talk, Tiffin made a point of noting that there is very little evidence that shows such a transition will enhance the education process. Its effects are, as of yet, unknown.

The Virtualization of Local Life

The issue hidden in all of this talk of technological and economic determinism in education is the relationship of schools to local geo-physical places. The virtualization of education removes schooling from the fabric of the local community. No matter how poor the old local schooling was, this transition cannot help but have profound effects on local communities.

Furthermore, this trend sheds light not only on the future of education but also on the future of work in general. My experience with the DU course represents a kind of tele-commuting for me. Over the next 20 years, I may tele-commute in all facets of my job. As we all know, tele-commuting is the future for vast numbers of workers in information societies around the world. Indeed, all those who work for multi-national corporations or for universities which put primary emphasis on disciplinary research over local service already experience work that is largely unrelated to their local communities.

So not only will we witness a future in which schooling is removed from local community life but work as well. Add to that the inevitable virtualization of most forms of entertainment (and religion, and politics, and. . .) and what will be left of local life? Will local communities go the way of the horse and become available primarily to those with lots of disposable capital? I can imagine a new industry arising out of this: professional role-playing community members hired by the super-rich to serve as face-to-face community members. Simulacra City. (In that world, I hope to play the seedy guy at the end of the Dunkin' Donuts counter who blathers on and on while no one listens.) ¤


Stephen Doheny-Farina is an Associate Professor of Technical Communication at Clarkson University where he teaches courses in rhetoric and electronic media.

Copyright © 1994 by Stephen Doheny-Farina. All Rights Reserved.

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