SEARCHING FOR A FACE: A PHENOMENOLOGICAL STUDY OF NON-FACE-TO-FACE UNDERGRADUATE LEARNING
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Online education is increasingly dominating the experience of formal learning. Although possible at any level of formal education this non-traditional program of learning via the Internet seems to be most accepted for undergraduates. Few have explored the meaning of the experience. The purpose of this dissertation is to present the meaning(s) of non-face-to-face learning for undergraduates. I define online education as non-face-to-face since it never requires a fully embodied encounter with others in real time, e.g., even in a synchronous video exchange reciprocal eye contact is impossible. I met several times with nine participants from different institutions who had taken or were currently enrolled in online classes (prior to 2019). Over the course of my conversations with these participants I recorded and created a text from our conversations and their written accounts. Using the method of hermeneutic phenomenology I present themes here based on my interpretation of that text. I have found that the loss of face-to-face contact is essential to the phenomenon in ways I did not anticipate. The meaning of the phenomenon is related to the essence of technology itself. Considering the meaning of online learning engages with the definition and purpose of education. Although the experience is described in terms of efficiency (ease and convenience) it is also shot through with absence, multitasking and voyeurism. The feeling of efficiency gives a sense that learning is absent. This leads to frustration with the experience. Non-face-to-face learning is described as a kind of game. It can give undergraduates a greater sense of responsibility for their education but without embodied presence with others the vulnerability that leads to community is absent. The explicitness of the asynchronous textual nature of the exchanges between students and instructors introduces ambiguity. The purpose of earning credits comes to dominate the experience instead of the means of learning. I give insights related to the vital importance of in-person learning and indicate paths for further phenomenological work in online education particularly related to teaching. Non-face-to-face learning should be thought of as something different than in-person learning. It cannot ever be a copy or full replacement.