The Insignificance of Being Remote (Episode 13)

In this segment, I reflect upon some recent experiences with communicating at a distance and extrapolate some principles for online and blended practitioners.

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I had three experiences just today with “being remote” during the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) 2014 Annual Meeting which I’d like to share with you with an eye toward thinking about how to better design technology-mediated learning environments.

First Experience

I participated in a phone conference today. Ok, so that’s not so amazing. Many of us have phone conferences, positive and negative. (As I record this there is even a popular viral video that has come through my Twitter stream and my email related to the meme that the conference call has become. (It’s called A Conference Call in Real Life if you’re interested.)

My conference call today was a fairly primitive affair in which someone from a meeting room across campus called my cell phone from a speaker phone so that I could stay close to the viewing room I was hosting for ELI2014 and so that I wouldn’t have to walk on my damaged leg any more than I have to. After being connected, the meeting started. There were new folks who had just been added to the committee, so the facilitator asked that everyone go around the table and introduce themselves. (It became apparent that the person who called me just left the phone sitting in front of her because I could hear her clearly while many others sounded like they were speaking through a fish tank.) I wondered when I would be cued for my turn to introduce myself. That never came. I thought, “Should I be assertive and speak up, reminding them that I’m here? Will that set a negative tone, making it all about me?” In the split second those thoughts took, the facilitator had moved on. Over the next 50 minutes, I strained to interpret garbled comments and recoiled from bursts of laughter or cross talk cacophony. I had mentioned to the facilitator that I had to leave the two hour meeting midway through. A briefing was still going as my departure point loomed. Handouts with charts were being referenced. I struggled to interpolate what the charts might convey. I decided to hang-up, and then I sent an email to the facilitator thanking her for making arrangements for me to connect remotely. I noted that I could follow a lot of the meeting until I had to leave but would appreciate a scan of the handouts if possible. She responded later saying that handouts would be sent, apologizing for not introducing me (I hadn’t mentioned it), and noting that I had some to do items that came out of the second half of the meeting.

Second Experience

Kelvin via Telepresence Robot with Linda Futch at ELI2014

Kelvin via Telepresence Robot with Linda Futch at ELI2014 (Photo compliments of Malcolm Brown)

The coolest thing I got to do today was drive a “telepresence robot” at the face-to-face ELI2014 conference from my location in Central Florida! If you’re unfamilar, a telepresence robot allows the “driver” to appear on a video screen at a remote location and even control the positioning of the video screen, orienting it to “face” those with whom one is speaking. I collaborated on the recent 7 Things You Should Know About Telepresence Robots piece as a member of ELI’s advisory group for the “7 Things” series, so I was primed and ready to try this out even though there were technical problems the day before that gave other drivers problems and caused me to lose my spot on the earlier day. I already knew that I would likely be able to hear the “on-site” people fairly well but that they would have a difficult time hearing me. I still wanted to give it a shot. And, you know what? It was kinda cool! However, it was definitely a novelty act. People pointed and smiled. Some paused for a photo op. Others walked the other way. (Afraid of being assimilated?) I rolled the robot around the room, heading for likely targets. A few whom I accosted tried to engage in a one-sided conversation. I maximized every non-verbal communication skill at my disposal: exaggerated facial expressions, gestures, a notepad with pre-written conversation cues (e.g., “Hi, I’m Kelvin.” “Are you enjoying #ELI2014?” “Pour me a cup of coffee?”).  Some asked what the experience was like for me at my end. I smiled and motioned with a thumbs up and a wiggle-waggling so-so hand. (Bryan Alexander has shared a much more elaborate version of his experiences driving what he called his “robotic doppelganger” or “dopplebot” at the same event.)

Third Experience

I participated in a group viewing room for the ELI2014 virtual sessions. These were divided into two types of sessions: 1) webcasts and 2) exclusive online sessions. Let me describe both experiences.


A webcast is basically just watching in your browser a video feed of a face-to-face conference session alongside whatever the presenter is displaying from her/his computer (e.g., usually slides). Each webcast session is assigned a moderator who is the bridge between the online participants and the presenter(s)/face-to-face participants. Displayed in the browser next to the slides and video is a rudimentary chat room window to which participants can post questions or comments. In the webcast sessions I observed, the moderator posted a “Hi, my name is xxxxx. I’m your moderator” message, and later at the appropriate time added an, “Are there any questions for the presenters” question. Webcast watchers rarely posted anything in the chat room. Presenters often failed to acknowledge the online audience. (Some virtual attendees took to Twitter to engage with one another about the sessions in a backchannel outside of the chat room using one or more conference hashtags.) In one instance, though, presenters put up a PollEveryWhere poll and invited the face-to-face participants to respond. (Those in our room weren’t sure what to do.) We asked the moderator, “Are we invited to participate as well?” “Yes,” said the moderator. We took issue with the response options and asked the moderator to raise a hand and comment that our experience on the issue was a bit different than the response options would allow. (We wanted to engage!) After a while the moderator replied that if we had a question we could relay it during the Q&A session later. (The presenters had long since moved on. Our group decided to move on also. To another session.)

Exclusive Online Session

Susie Henderson leads a wrap-up session for online participants including photos of the f2f environment

Susie Henderson leads a wrap-up session for online participants including photos of the f2f environment

The exclusive online sessions were conducted in Adobe Connect, a web-conferencing or webinar platform. Each of these sessions were available only to online participants and included facilitators, polls, and prominent technical support resources in addition to the presenters and their slides or other on-screen content. There was a chatroom, but the facilitators (and in many cases the presenters) posted questions/answers and links to supplemental resources. Many of the participants posted comments and questions as well. Facilitators made an effort to point out any comment or question that was unaddressed. It was clear that these sessions were designed with the online participants in mind. (I was usually so engaged in these sessions that it was difficult for me to tweet in the backchannel.)

So What?

As an online and blended learning guy I pay attention to things like presence, interaction, and modalities. As an instructor and instructional designer I think about designing for student success. As someone who works closely with coordinating accessibility efforts I think about concepts like “inclusivity” and Universal Design for Learning.

In online learning circles many of us know the phrase “social presence” from its inclusion in the Community of Inquiry model developed by Garrison and others and used by some to study meaningful interactions in online courses. Such folks may be familiar with this definition of social presence: “the ability of learners to project themselves socially and emotionally into a community of inquiry” (Garrison, Anderson, and Archer, 2000, p. 2).  (”Project themselves” always stands out to me in that definition.)

“Arms of Henricus Rex Septimus” by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts on Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0[email protected]/8703100084/

However, the term social presence actually dates back to the 70s (Short, Williams, and Christie, 1976) when it was defined as: “the salience of the other in a mediated communication and the consequent salience of their interpersonal interactions” (p. 65). “Salience” isn’t a word that we use much in everyday speech. “Salience of the other??” If you look it up, though, you’ll find that it has to do with being noticed, being important. It’s related to “projecting yourself” in that the earliest usage of salient is in heraldry, coats of arms. The word salient refers to the “leaping” of those horses or whatever emblazoned upon the family pennant. The animal juts up in the air, demanding to be noticed.

Take Away Principles

From my experiences today I am reminded of the following principles that should always be on the minds of online and blended course designers:

  1. Nobody likes feeling like their participation doesn’t matter; like they are insignificant. (Do any of our students feel this way because of our course designs?)
  2. There is a difference between “designing for” interaction with those at a distance and “allowing” passive observation. (Are we designing for meaningful interaction?)
  3. We need to be aware of gatekeeper functions when grafting remote people into a face-to-face experience. (In our courses, whose voices are dependent upon the control of others?)
  4. The integration of face-to-face and online into one cohesive experience is difficult! (Are we just combining face-to-face and online and calling it blended learning?)
  5. Those in power often don’t realize their power. Those without power are very aware of its absence. (Where are the power relationships in our courses? Are we wielding our power wisely? Generously?)
  6. Most people will give the person in charge a chance to get it right, but then they’ll either disengage or rebel. (What negative learner actions are rooted in our lack of appropriate facilitation?)
  7. Ensuring that all are seen/heard is only a minimum standard. (Are we just expecting our learners to speak, or are we expecting them to have something worthwhile to say?)
  8. Technology is only a tool. It does not substitute for design. (Technologies can fail. Do you have a Plan B? Plan C?)
  9. Poorly designed interaction can be worse than no interaction. (How can our interactive activities be improved so that everyone’s contributions matter?)

Let’s Connect!

Do you resonate with any of these experiences? Disagree with any of the takeaway principles? Have other observations? Please leave a comment below or send a tweet to @kthompso.

To cite this episode, please use the APA citation below. (For other citation styles, please see your style guide, or visit the Grammar Girl site.)

Thompson, K. (Producer/Host). (2014, February 5). The insignificance of being remote [Episode 13]. Of Courses Online. Podcast retrieved [date here] from


Garrison, D., Anderson, T., and Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 1-19.

Short, J., Williams, E., and Christie, B. (1976). The Social Psychology of Telecommunications. London: John Wiley.