On-line Teaching and the “Transfer of Knowledge”

“[O]ur slothful minds and senses can be animated, both by the arts and their related studies and by scientific enquiries alike, so that we respond to the beauty of the world.”

 (R. F.  Holland, “Education and Values”)


Massive shift to on-line teaching, conferencing and meeting in general confirmed what long-distance lovers have known for some time: that it brings some advantages – for some, the possibility of meeting at all –, but that altogether, it is not the real thing. Not only are we disturbed by the irritating technical complications and by the limitation of audio-visual transmission, but the sheer physical distance (or absence) diminishes the quality of our human interaction. When human beings meet in person, there is a range of acts and rituals that surround the meeting and facilitate the get-together: we walk towards the room, greet, maybe hug, unlock the door, comment on the room and on the weather, take off our coats, take a seat, look around, take out pencils, switch of the phone, observe the others’ movements, postures and body language. Shared space signals that we are involved in a shared activity. The movements of others and their settling down prepare us to start. Dancers, actors and martial artists know how attuning to others is crucial for common performance, and so do negotiators, teachers and orators.

Mutual attuning and concentration are not made impossible by on-line meetings, but they require special skills. These skills are similar to those of a good movie director who keeps us absorbed in the screen for hours. On-line meetings require the director’s skills but do not give us her means: a teacher cannot play dramatic music when she approaches an important point or change shot when she wants to proceed to another subject. And we would be missing the point of teaching if we claimed that it is, in fact, a kind of theatre for the audience. Whether a student, a conferee, an employee, we are not sitting in the auditorium, watching, we are on stage, performing. Audio-visual transmission (maybe even virtual reality) can reproduce or orchestrate reality good enough for entertainment, but it cannot reproduce shared human activity.

It could be objected that teaching (and learning) is very unlike dancing in that its primary agent is not the body but speech, and that there is no trouble in transmitting speech ever since telephones were invented. But such objection is based on a misunderstanding: speech is more than script, a lecture is more than speech and teaching is more than lecturing. Only someone who has been battered by the phrase “transfer of knowledge” long enough can be made to believe that teaching can be transmitted without essential loss. We do not need Socrates to tell us that learning is an engaged activity in which discussion, questioning, opposition, even provocation are inherent to the journey of thinking and understanding. The teacher-student relationship, as well as the community of fellow students, facilitate or obstruct the undertaking, similar to the way a team of hikers can reach or fail to reach the top of the mountain depending on the quality of the team as such: the quality of the members’ relationship, the quality of leadership and collaboration, mutual trust, respect, but also the team’s harmony and cohesion. Any teacher treasures the rare occasions in which her class attuned so well that teaching became a concert, an outburst of joint creativity in which what was discovered far transcended what individual members, including the teacher, could have found by themselves. When the suggestion comes – and I am certain it will – to keep part of our teaching on-line, let us remember these elusive moments of harmony and weigh them against the comforts of home office.

Kamila Pacovská