Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Being There: What Presence Means in a Digital World

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, Sept 01, 2020

This is an unedited automated transcript produced by my Pixel 4 from this presentation:


Hi everyone. I'm Stephen Downs and I bring you greetings from my home office in Castleman, Ontario, Canada. Thank you for taking the time to watch my presentation today. It's called being there and I'm looking at what presents means in a digital world.

Recently, well-known political figure recited the following words. Person woman man, camera TV. And on the basis of that recitation. Proclaimed I'm cognitively there. What did he mean by that? Did he mean that he's in this place? Not exactly did he mean that he is in full possession of his mental capacities.

Well, kind of. The idea of a test like this is to show that in some way you're responsive to the external world and so the fact that he was able to look at these words and remember them suggests that the external world has at least some albeit minimal impact on him.

I remember a movie called Being. There. The plot of the movie was that a gardener for a rich person. Really knew nothing except what he learned from TV and gardening. He was you know in the common parlance an idiot savant. And what happened is when his rich patron died he lost his home he went out into the world, but because he was well dressed and because he spoke very well.

People. Attributed to him some kind of aristocracy and instead of chance the gardener, he became Chauncy Gardener and they gave him credit for deep insight but really all he was talking about was what he had learned from TV the tropes and the themes and gardening. Was he cognitively there?

Now, this talk is about presence. And I'm sure you're all familiar with the community of inquiry theory Garrison Archer and Anderson that will be talking about in this talk. And therefore you're familiar with the concept of presence like the whole conference is named after it. And I'll be honest, I feel a bit like an imposter coming in and talking about presence, which really is somebody else's theory not my owns but.

I have the advantage of coming into it as a bit of an outsider. So I look at presents and I think first of all what a hard choice of word to use. What is presence? No, the dictionary definition the fact or condition of being present or that's not helpful.

One that is present the actual person or thing that is present. Well, that's not helpful either. The bearing carriage or air of a person especially a stately or distinguished bearing. That's sort of helpful but noteworthy quality of poise and effectiveness. No. Something such as spirit felt or believed to be present.

All of these definitions come from the merriam-webster dictionary in none of them really help us. Get a concept of what we mean here by presence. So I was searching around I found a definition that was kind of helpful to me. It's at a website called bodies at So now it's not authoritative but it's useful.

How about this? Presence is a state where I have my abilities and skills available in the moment, so I can respond to life in an adequate way. I am present when my thinking my emotional state and my physical being are aligned. And when my perception of what's going on inside my body and what's going on around me are coherent.

Well, that's a pretty good definition. You know, it gets at the sense of presence. More closely to what Anderson Archer and Garrison were talking about I think then the dictionary definition of presence. You know, but let's not lose sight of that dictionary definition. I mean one of the advantages I think of using a term like presence which hasn't really been used in this way.

Is its vagueness. It's ambiguity. It can mean many things and so is shorthand for what appears to be a much more complex concept. So, let's turn to the community of inquiry model. That's Terry Anderson just a couple of days ago wrote in his blog or on Twitter or somewhere that he can't believe it has been 30 years.

20 years whatever and it's been probably the most influential theory certainly for constructivist approaches to learning. It's played much less of a role. In connectivist approaches to learning. There are reasons for that. Although the reason overlap we'll talk a little bit about that overlap later on in this talk.

So the model they're different components of it, but with respect to presence the model defines three major types of presence, social presence cognitive presence and teaching presence. And we can see that these are three areas. Of education educational activity, right? The the cognitive is obvious it's you know, the actually learn stuff.

The teaching presence is obvious in context, although you know, it's a little bit less obvious in a constructivist approach. The social presence probably is the major contribution of this model and it's the environment the interaction the community etc that we find in a typical educational environment. In these three things combine together to support in the educational.

Experience to support discourse to set the climate for the environment of learning and. With respect to teaching and cognitive presence selecting the actual content to be learned. Okay. Well, what are these presences? Well the social presence and here I'm quoting from their paper is the ability of participants to identify with the community.

That is for example course of study to communicate purposefully in a trusting environment and to develop interpersonal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities, that's originally from garrison. Teaching presence is the design facilitation and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purpose of realizing personally meaningful and educational worthwhile learning outcomes.

And then cognitive presence is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse. So we get to the core of constructivism, which is making meaning. We get to the role of the instructor, which really is a scaffolding role and a directing role not so much a content transmission role.

And then the social part of it is the identification with the community. Now, I've had a lot to say about these different things over the years. For example with respect to community. I've talked about the subject of groups versus networks and I worry when the learning experience becomes a tribal experience becomes a conforming experience, for example.

The teaching role to my mind is less about orchestrating and directing and more about modeling and demonstrating to be the archetype. Or the prototype rather than the manager or director. And cognitive presence well. I don't think of education as making meaning at all. I think of education the actual learning component as growth and development the outcome of an education to me is a person not a body of knowledge.

But be that as it may these are still really useful concepts and their concepts that we can take forward in this discussion and profit usefully from them. But I want to be clear, right? This is not my theory. This is their theory and I'm talking about it as an outsider, which I think is fair.

So, In the community of inquiry model we have the three things social presence cognitive presence teaching presence. And they give us. Insight into the design. Of a learning experience I could say the design of a course here, but I'll keep it broader and the consequent student experience and it's the student experience here that's really interesting to me.

So for social presence, for example, we have design elements such as communication group cohesion and collaboration. Now aside, I don't really think these are designed elements. I think of these a design outcomes. The design element would be the thing you use to allow for communication, for example a chat application or discussion board or whatever the thing you use for collaboration such as a collaborative authoring tool such as Google Docs.

Small quiddall. The outcome or the student experience that they're driving for here in social presence is the valuing of learning the opportunity to express views and encouraging collaboration. Now that's there's a lot of packed into that valuing of learning for example. Isn't a type of knowledge per se but an attitude.

And you know, this is where education almost. Merges with propaganda and I want to be careful there opportunity to express views by contrast is is completely different that's an affordance, right? That's a capacity that a person has. Now here. I would want the student experience to be something like the ability or capacity to express views rather than the opportunity which connotes the idea that this is something that is allowed.

Similarly with the other presences cognitive presence the design elements challenge a question, explorer problem proposed solutions resolution. It's that's a fairly standard model. Of cognitive inquiry there are other models. I've talked about for example, aggregate remix repurpose feed forward and the purpose here is completely different. The student experience expected here sense of puzzlement.

We'll come back to that information sharing connecting ideas apply new ideas, it's it's like you're working with knowledge as though we're clay something separate from you and again that's not really how I see knowledge teaching presence as a commented before is a manager kind of role on this theory instructor guidance building understanding motivating.

Again, these are described as design elements right the experience being something like focusing discussions sharing personal, meaning initiating discussion topics. Doesn't really merge these don't really mesh. But okay. You get the picture right you're trying to use design elements drawing on these three definitions of presence, which create a student experience the precise contents of those are less relevant.

Than. The desired outcome which is the experience you want the students to have these kinds of experiences and that's what's really key in this community of inquiry model. So. What is presence then? It's that thing that makes you feel something. Have an experience. And when you're trying to create an experience what you're doing is you're acknowledging that there is a person at the other end.

Of your teaching activity the other end of the line in the digital scenario a thinking person a feeling person and a guiding person or conversely a person who is being guided. Also rough and ready definition of presence for our purposes now wasn't long after this area was completed that alternative types of presence were proposed.

I'll just go through a number of them. This is not a taxonomy or anything like that is just an indication of how flexible. The concept of presence is.

One type of alternative presence is contextual presence or sometimes called interface presence. And the idea here is that. Especially in the case of distance education, you are working with technology your working with this medium the computer. I've got one right in front of me here, you can't see it because I'm using it but it's there, trust me.

And. This computer mediates are interaction with an interface and meanwhile there's around me a context in which this interaction is taking place as well, so the tools that I'm using the environment that I'm using these all create an additional presence and I'm hoping. That my environment my contextual presence in some way conveys something about me something about my message.

So it's not just you know about input forms login screens survey elements. You know stuff like that, it's not a lot even about. The the computer environment itself but it's about what not environment. What that context says about me and more to the point. What it says about me to you what kind of impact on the experience does it have to you do you change your perception of me give you simple little example you go to a search engine now to these days we go to Google we expect to type our search into Google and you get a bunch of results really simple but it used to be the case where when you try to do a search.

You would go to Yahoo and you go through their list of categories and you had to think like a Yahoo person to go through category after category after category to finally find the thing you were looking for there was horrible, trust me, it was horrible. I used to different interfaces present to very different ways.

Of looking at the world and give you two very different experiences and impact you into very different ways. Another type of presence.

It was called originally learning presence and then lamb used would Anderson considers and unfortunate word autonomy presence. I don't know and of course it's the the natural opposite or opposite maybe not the right word the natural correlate of teaching presidency at teaching presence learning presence. But what is the learning presence the impact on the learner and that's where the autonomy comes in, right?

And to quote from Anderson the word is largely used in the context of independence and freedom to make one's own decision. In educational context this autonomy is valued to some degree but is all students know is severely curtailed by the edicts and the wishes of the teacher. So the idea here is that there is a kind of presence that's created by the limitations a teacher sets on student autonomy.

Now we can extend that and she does we could suggest learning presence represents elements such as self-efficacy as well as other cognitive behavioral and motivational constructs supportive of online learner self-regulation now. I don't like talk of self-regulation particularly but I do like. Of I don't want to say self-control that's about the same but or self-management that's about the same it's almost like we don't have the right word for it.

I sometimes use the word itself governance but more recently. I've come to use the word agency. Another type of presence and this is one that was actually adopted by the authors it was proposed by Marty Cleveland in this and Prisca Campbell. Emotional presence. And this is the outward expression of emotion affect and feeling by individuals among individuals in a community of query.

As they relate to an interact with the learning technology course content students and the instructor and that's quoted from Terry Anderson. The emotional presence. Involves things design elements, such as emotional feedback design elements, such as learning climate these days we might talk about it as the impact of caring and teaching where caring is construed broadly.

It's the idea of feeling in teaching. It draws out ideas of dependence support. I don't want to say reinforcement because there's a behaviorist implication but reinforcement in the sense of affirming a person's sense of self-value, etc. That seems to me to be a type of presence. I mentioned earlier agency.

Now agency presence has been specifically proposed drawing on Bandura. And the capacity to recognize and use the power insights and liability of emotional responses. And emergent agency in which motions can be used to reach insights again, that's quoting from Terry.

And the idea here is that. Self-efficacy. Has an impact on. How resilient you are how much stress you feel how you respond to failure. Etc Laura Ritchie is done a fair amount of work on that and leaning the slides. I've added a reference to her work. I thought about agency.

And I've, I don't want to say concluded but proposed that it consists of elements like. Security. Identity. A voice and opportunity. And these elements. Are elements that enable a person to most effectively realize their own sense of identity their own selves. And that could be a type of presence.

Another one again is a lot of taxonomy so there's going to be some overlap here affective how you make others feel. Affective presence refers to the consistent and stable feelings that an individual tends to leave in their interaction partners. It's an interesting kind. Of of presence and the you know has one person remarks, it's not easy to detect because you don't actually get to see what the world is like when you're not around.

But we certainly sense it and feel it, you know, it's the idea when a person walks into a room whether everybody gravitates toward them, or whether everybody retreats. It's the sense where what a person starts talking you feel like you can trust this person that the person is coming from a good place as opposed to you feel that this person maybe is trying to put something over on you.

Perhaps to lead you to believe something that isn't true. It's a type of presence. It's the kind of presence that has created by. You know body language gestures eye contact general bearing does a person walk confidently or do they slink. Yeah, definitely a non-cognitive presence definitely not a social presence something different.

I've added one that I didn't see in the literature but I wanted to put it in because it seems pretty obvious competitive presence.

I did I search for it and the best. I could find was an article. About the need to have curricula guidelines. For teaching molding and training students to become progressive competitive productive cross-cultural and cross-functional members of the global work for. Um, Let's sort of what I mean. But it's also the sort of presence that's created when you have things like grades and you grade on a curve and to get an A you have to not only master the material you have to outperform all of your colleagues.

It's the sense that's created that the rest of the world is not on your side. That they are competing directly for a limited set of resources or limited set of opportunities and that's certainly to my mind has an impact on the person.

There's even a kind of presence and here we go we go back all the way to the original definition. Presence as holy presence or imminence. I appeal here to the work of Rudolph auto who wrote the idea of the holy and his concept of mysterium tremendum a fascinance. Mystery tremendousness and fascination, now, these are the impacts.

That a holy or imminent presence can have on you mystery the sense of wonder. Tremendum this sense of awe. Fascinons the sense of curiosity now auto, of course is talking about religious experience. But this kind of presence can be produced by anything really that is greater than ourselves. I put on a slide a picture of a galaxy and I think almost everyone when they stare at the sky at night and see the array of stars above us feeling these three things but it's also the sense of y'all maybe a national movement, maybe joining something for the greater good again something that is bigger than ourselves.

Something. That creates a sense of wonder what could the future be something tremendous it would be great. And fascinating how could we make it happen? And there are many kinds of you know, contexts if you will where these feelings are. Created. Okay, so that's a lot about present. I skip a little bit more briefly here through the mechanisms for creating a presence and of course the original community of inquiry theory, that's what a lot of it is are the mechanisms for creating presence.

Perception deliberation conception action leading again to perception and the activities of exploration integration resolution triggering again. I've talked about my mechanism of aggregation remix repurpose feed forward, so I'm doing in a non-cognitivist way what they're doing in a cognitive estate but at the center. Of both theories is this experience we're trying to create an experience in a person so really creating presence is about creating experiences and if you want to fine tune it.

Creating the right kind of experiences appropriate to the outcome that you're attempting to produce in the person. And that particular distinction will be important. So the obvious way the first obvious way to create presences through interaction and this is where an element of the theory comes forward the community of inquiry theory comes forward the interaction equivalency theory.

Which proposes that given high levels of one kind of interaction other two kinds of interaction other kinds of interaction can be reduced without loss of academic achievement. Our different kinds of interaction. More or less equivalent. I think that's an empirical question there's been a number of studies to suggest that they are there have been a number of studies that suggest that you can.

You know, a substitute direct personal communication with online zoom chat say and produce the same academic output the question. I ask is what do we mean by academic output? But that's a different question. Interaction, well these days there's it's almost like a cold and age of interaction online one example of something is an application called mingler.

Software that allows you to create ad hoc private video conferences and so here you're getting at not just you know the capacity to talk and look at each other but a lot of the randomness that comes from you know in the hallway conversations or chance meetings outside the classroom, etc.

Of course the kind of interaction that many of us are most familiar with is conferencing we're doing that right now. Right now it's kind of one way but in a few minutes. I'll be interacting with you. And the tools that we're using now are you know zoom meat maybe Skype if we have the patience for it, hopefully not web apps.

I hope we've passed that and online these days a lot of lessons are being learned about how to do video interaction. Another way of creating presence is to increase agency. Eric Shininger talks about transforming teaching where the traditional approach is low agency and the transformed approach is high agency, so instead of traditionally delivering instruction the high agency approaches to facilitator support learning in this relation to the teacher presence that the community of inquiry model talks about instead of being teacher-centered.

High agency learning a student-centered or as I would say person-centered because at a certain point you want to eliminate the distinction between students and non-student. Low-agency as standardized learning everybody learns the same thing at the same time high agency learning is personalized and perhaps differentiated low agency learning is content focused high agency learning Eric says it's application focused.

I'd be I'd go even further and I would say it's activity focused or even experienced focused. Low agency learning looks for the right answer and presumes that there is a right answer. High agency learning is more about developing he says developing thinking. I would say developing a range of capacities that include thinking.

A way to create. Presence in this way, for example, and there are thousands of example is through the use of manipulatives now that's just a long word that means a tool you can play with online. And the idea is that you're presented with an environment you can manipulate that environment but that environment is governed by a set of rules that you may or may not know about and by manipulating the environment you can visualize or experience the rules.

Or the principles or the laws of nature or whatever they are directly in front of you. The, One of the things that. Is interesting here is when these rules are not explicit. There's the danger that we might learn rules that are inappropriate or or incorrect. I'll talk about that when I talk about the game efficiation.

Virtual labs. Is another example of manipulatives, but now they're more involved they're they're more. In alignment with the actual physical experience you would have in the physical lab and you know, there's the whole range of simulations from flight simulators to negotiation simulators and virtual labs or laboratory simulators and the idea here is to get this feel for what it's like to work in this environment.

Some people are saying now that the learning experience platform. Is this kind of way? Of increasing presence.

In upside learning and author wrote learning experience platforms with its philosophy, it's use of data science. It's personalization with it being social in nature providing for continuous learning needs and updating personal skill sets is as close to a role playing game. And a new way in which we learn in our modern world.

Now all of that's true, except for the part that says that it's new my introduction to online learning was in role-playing games and we used in the 1990s things like muds multi-user dungeons, we converted them into learning environments. And then there's gamification, which I talked about just a few moments ago.

I learned a lot about civic management playing SimCity I learned a lot about military strategy playing civilization. Now did those things that I learned were those actually correct things but here's where the design is really important, for example in SimCity. I always got good results when I lowered taxes.

Now is that true in real life or is that a fiction that the authors of SimCity created for me? I can't tell simply by playing SimCity. And so that's part of the danger of creating experiences artificially. Is that the experiences that you're creating might not be authentic. They might not be reflective of the world around us and so they will create dissonance cognitive dissonance when we try to try to apply those experience in the real world.

Now. I talked earlier about. Where the community of inquiry model and it's cognitive it's foundations and my own. Connectivist model. Interoperator overlap. And a number of years ago in an informal talk in Vienna as a matter of fact. I took the community of inquiry model and I gave it an edit and instead of presence.

I used to the word network social network cognitive network teaching network and then in the center instead of educational experience. I put the self. Not a course. And what I said at the time and I still think that this is true when we look through the internet, we are creating networks.

Or perception mechanisms of perception ways of perceiving the world as an extension of ourselves as McLuhan said. Facets of our identity when we look at the computer we see ourselves through our contacts our liaisons and our interactions. Now.

If I wanted to tie these things together a little bit more tightly. I'd say it like this. That. The networks that we create. Are the ways we create experiences for ourselves. We are ultimately. Feeling beings perceiving beings experiencing beings, our brain is not a cognitive system so much as it is a perceptual system.

And so the reason why networking is so important to learning is that it creates these experiences. But that is also why presence is so important to learning presence is the creation of these experiences. When you have presence. You become cognitively there you become someone whose experiences and consequent thought processes reactions whatever are consonant consistent with.

The you know, the range of possible phenomena in the world. Understanding presence in this way leads to some very practical ways to understand and ways that extend beyond just what happens in the classroom. For example.

The concept of autoparesis as expressed in the daily improvisation blog asks how should our educational our education policy progress if it turns out that as we suspect the history environmental conditions are inseparable from individual development. Poverty austerity unemployment stress etc will all contribute to developmental problems an unevening, sorry an uneven playing field which serves nobody well, this is a crucial understanding.

All of our experiences not just our in class experiences have an impact on our learning. And our learning takes place in this wider context, so if somebody says to me, two plus two equals, four. And teaches me that I am experiencing that in the context of whatever environment. I mean in a war context in a refugee context in a poverty context or context of privilege.

And that fact two plus two equals four will actually be different for me than it will be for all these other people. Let's talk briefly about how to promote presence. Because it's not the sort of thing that you can just say we want presence. And basically in work that's been done around the world.

What we've seen is that innovations that have advantages relative to other other innovations presume is a great example zoom you can do a video right away no problem. That are compatible with existing practices that are not complex and can be trialled on a limited basis and produce results. These are their things that are adopted.

And there are various studies that have shown that you know, these developments need to actually have these concrete advantages. I've often talked about the two factor advantage theory. Where if you're trying to bring something on stream, it needs to be not just an incremental improvement but it needs to do two things better than anything else did before.

That's like when zoom came along it did two things better. Number one, it may joining a conference simple and easy. And number two the quality. Of the audio in the video was much superior to say WebEx or Adobe Connect. And part of promoting this is also creating a critical mass of adoption.

And you can't just create that overnight and you can't create that by yourself you're innovation needs to diffuse through as it were the network and a slow. Incremental fashion through society. This idea that you're going to create a Twitter and overnight everybody's going to adopt it. That automatically is a non-network approach that automatically means some kind of broadcasting mechanism of distribution.

If the innovation is genuinely going to create presence where presence involves the elements we've talked about including for example, interactivity genuine interactive. Ly and not everybody watching the same person. Then the diffusion of that innovation is going to be slower. But at a certain point, it does reach a critical mass and at that point, it can't be turned around.

This leads to the idea of what might be called quiet hacks of education. And these are forms of activism. Says an article in first Monday that I say here that focus on quiet acts of caring rather than amplification of a message or platform. The creation of presence is the opposite of amplification.

The creation of presence is essentially a networking activity that is based on one to one or one to small group interactions and not a mass movement. So, for example, we have the word the work of Sadia Hartman who describes a movement driven not by uplift or the struggle for recognition or citizenship but by the vision of a world that would guarantee to every human being free access to the earth a full enjoyment of the necessities of life according to individual desires tastes and inclinations.

That's an important concept. You know, it's not about the creation of presentation of a great idea that will influence everyone. It's the quiet one by one individual augmentation and increase of the capacities of each and every person in a society. In order to as we may say form a more perfect network.

So in promoting presence each of us has our responsibilities and Nancy Dixon talks about them responsibilities as members of a society for example to function as a co-participant in the creation maintenance and transformation of organizational realities to willingly share what one knows with colleagues, etc. Yeah, Trevor Noah wrote in born a crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn't do?

Crime cares. Crime is grass roots crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. It's the same with education the same with news the same with all of these things that are important for the the functioning of individuals and the functioning of societies. It's not so much cares, you know, which is nebulous like presence.

It's the individual quiet acts that constitute care or presence. The recognition that the person at the other end of the line is human. And the understanding that we are creating. And helping create experiences for that person in this the experiences that will teach them what they will ultimately learn.

So, that's my talk. You know, I can talk more about the architectures of participation. I could talk more about the role of artificial intelligence and all of this and these are significant questions, but ultimately I want to say creating presence. Is the creation of. Individual hacks that impact other people and and hopefully impact them in a positive way.

Thank you for your time. And thank you for your kind attention.


- Stephen's Web ~ Being There: What Presence Means in a Digital World ~ Stephen Downes, Oct 27, 2020
, - , Oct 27, 2020
, - Being There: What Presence Means In A Digital World., Jan 02, 2021

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