From “Face-to-Face” to “Face-to-Screen”: Virtual Classrooms as Synthetic Situations
Michael Knapp, Alpen-Adria-Universität Klagenfurt, Austria
Due to the Coronavirus epidemic, classroom teaching stopped more or less from one day to the next. Universities all over the world had to switch to some kind of digital learning arrangement, to avoid interrupting the on-going semester and to ensure the learning progress of the students. While some courses are currently handled in the form of work assignments via e-mail, there are probably a larger number of lectures and seminars that are now being held as webinars using programs such as Zoom, Skype or BigBlueButton. These programs create various opportunities and challenges for interacting and communicating with students in different types of courses. They offer new ways in which content can be presented and communicated through various digital channels.
The following personal observations and findings are intended to provide some insights into the new socio-spatial configurations and interaction patterns in teaching a sociology seminar online. I tried to reflect on my own seminar course where, after the shutdown, I suddenly faced the challenge of adapting the course to an online-mediated form of seminar. What became obvious is that virtual classrooms are somehow different social settings, with more and different ways of social interaction, between students and teachers, and between students themselves. In the case below, I describe how I perceived the students’ participation in a virtual classroom setting, and how I tried to adapt the course setting to these initial experiences.
Teaching and learning in a natural (classroom) situation, where students and lecturers are physically present in one place, is different from a virtual classroom situation. Here, people are located in different places, and are connected through digital devices. Technology, in the form of hardware, software and networked infrastructure, plays a major role, because it enables and shapes the social forms of communication and interaction that are enacted.
A virtual classroom can be seen as what Karin Knorr Cetina has called a synthetic situation . This is different from a natural situation, like a physical classroom setting, in some important ways, which has implications for the spatial, temporal and interactional nature of lectures and seminars. First, it is based entirely on an informational infrastructure , like internet browsers, digital learning platforms or video-audio communication solutions, which have properties distinct to those of physical objects in a physical classroom setting (e.g. beamers, blackboards or flipcharts). Second, it is ontologically fluid, meaning that participation in virtual classrooms is unstable and inherently in flux. Students can enter and leave the virtual classroom with a single click without any major effort. Attendance is not bound to physical presence in a classroom, but instead takes place through the spatial settings in one’s own home, which can interfere with other social activities. Third, synthetic situations can transcend beyond the actual situation of the seminar session, and thus allow the content to be reproduced in other settings, or to be used in further work outside the actual session. For example, it is possible to record the seminar sessions to retrieve them for later use, or to place the results of a written group exercise in digital forums for further discussion.
One aspect that was interesting and that became food for thought was students’ use of communicative and expressive features in the virtual classroom of BigBlueButton, and their effects on seminar interactions. There are several modes of participation in a webinar. One can join in as a listener only, one can participate with an active (and mutable) microphone, or one can also switch on the webcam and thus participate in the seminar with audio and video. These three modes are obviously different in the way students can participate in the webinar and in the possibilities of involvement and expression. In addition, a public chat function is available to all participants, which allows them to contribute a short written comment.
For the first session, I had asked the students to turn on their microphones beforehand, in order to have the opportunity to say something and thus participate in discussions in the seminar. During our session, I posed several questions to the students and repeatedly asked them to turn on their microphones and say something. However, the answers were not given via the microphone as originally expected, but they were written into the public chat. Successively the students made short comments, which were related to my questions and which were then commented on by me. In contrast to a physical seminar room setting, there was no need to answer my question via the microphone and thus with the students’ own voices. The implemented chat function made it less demanding in terms of involvement and risks incurred in answering my questions. Although it was a good starting point, I was not satisfied with the social interactions in the webinar. It was mainly me who was talking and responding to the answers written in the chat.
One week later, the next virtual classroom meeting took place. Based on the observation of the first seminar unit that there are several possibilities in the virtual classroom to participate communicatively, I wanted to try out a group task in order to get the students to speak. A function called ‘breakout rooms’ in BigBlueButton makes it possible to divide the whole seminar group into smaller sub-groups and assign them – for a limited time – to separate ‘rooms’. I had prepared a task and gave the students 15 minutes to discuss several questions in these breakout rooms. After the time had elapsed, one person from the sub-groups was asked to share the results of the discussion with the full group. In this way, I was able to get almost everyone in the seminar group to speak and to increase the verbal exchange between the students. Furthermore, students were asked to write down their group results and post their writings into the Moodle forum where the virtual classroom was embedded.
What these short personal remarks have shown is that a virtual classroom can be seen as a synthetic situation where interactions occur somehow differently than in a natural classroom situation. The implemented functions in the software create new possibilities of interaction that are not available in a classic seminar setting. The chat function, for example, is a good way to get quick reactions from the students, but it somehow contradicts the intention of a seminar which is about students speaking up and trying to express themselves verbally. On the other hand, the ‘breakout room’ function provides an easy way to get people working and talking together in smaller group settings. Similar to a physical classroom, this allows teachers to conduct group tasks and discussions that can facilitate student learning.
Despite such positive aspects, it should not be forgotten that learning is also an emotional and relational process. The presence and energy of a discussion arising in a physical classroom setting cannot be realised in a solely virtual setting. Hence, this crisis is likely to make us more aware of the benefits of physical proximity and presence for teaching and learning.
 Knorr Cetina, K. (2009). The Synthetic Situation: Interactionism for a Global World. Symbolic Interaction, 32(1), 61–87. https://doi.org/10.1525/si.2009.32.1.61
 Castells, M. (2010). The Rise of the Network Society (2nd Edition). Wiley-Blackwell.
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