Monday, March 24, 2008

You Are There: The Sense of Presence Offered by Digital Tools

Disclaimer: This post was written last Friday and then forgot to do a final revision and post. I think it is still timely, though, because it is about more than the event that I describe. The event is just one example of the sense of presence that we can experience with today's digital communication tools.

I am sitting in my comfy chair in Huntsville, Texas, on March 20, 2008. I am watching a TV feed while Barack Obama speaks in Portland Oregon, having just received the endorsement of Gov. Bill Richardson. My daughter, who lives in Portland, is in the audience. She is texting me. I just phoned a friend and told her what was going on. Now I am writing, watching, and listening. How cool is that? One of the amazing things about this is that I, a digital immigrant, find all this tremendously exciting, but at the same time am not surprised by the ability to do all these great things at once. After all, I went looking for a live feed expecting to find one, and Emily and I text all the time. I know it is a cliche, but seeing the live video and knowing that she and I are experiences it simultaneously despite hundreds of miles and two time zones, makes me feel almost if I was there. This is the sense of presence that we enjoy today via the Internet.

Back in the late 1990's I first started thinking about this quality, this attribute of our digital lives. I was at the time immersed in doctoral studies, and one of my professors, Dr. Doug Rogers, Baylor University College of Education, kept talking about it. He was quite prescient, because even at that time, before anyone was talking about real time or digital streaming, he was stressing the sense of "being there" as a major transformative element of the emerging digital world. The power of this sense is one major hook that technology has for users, and a big factor in capturing students' attention.

My first experience with this phenomenon was during the time I was learning about instructional technology from Dr. Rogers. One day a very excellent teacher of ESL brought a class to the library. They were looking up their home countries and towns and putting together reports. One girl had just entered that week, and was from a town in Mexico that was so small we could not locate it on any of our printed maps. At this time the only way I could get Internet was to bring my own 1440 baud modem from home and dial out using a direct line that I shared with the shop teacher so we could send and receive faxes. We sat down and searched for her town, and there was indeed a web site about it. I will never forget the look on that young girls' face as she exclaimed "That's it!" There was a picture of a town square with the inevitable church, and a park with some benches. She pointed and said, "I used to sit there every day with my grandmother!" No doubt about it...her sense of presence at that moment was palpable. I have never forgotten the lesson I learned that day, that giving youngsters a sense of presence can open them up to us, and also get them excited about learning. She visited that site many times after our discovery, and I like to think it eased the homesickness that virtually all immigrant children feel when thinking of the homes left behind.

Whe we are confronted with heavily filtered school environments where students' access to the many great social networking Web 2.0 resources available, we are keeping them from having some experiences that offer the sense of presence. It's time to speak up for greater access.


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  2. It truly shrinks the world doesn't it? I was chatting online with my sister-in-law in florida and my daughter called on her cellphone to let me listen to part of a Third Day concert before a Rangers game in Dallas so I was virtually sitting with both of them in different states at the same time.

  3. Amen to greater access! We don't even have full Internet access for all of our staff. It creates a huge digital divide and a culture of the haves and have nots. My children are still very young but I am so glad to know that I will have so many ways to keep up with them as they get older. I can't wait to see what's invented in the next two decades!