The class starts the way all programming classes usually start – we say our hellos and open our computers. We have been working on a game together, a fruit ninja clone, and first we remind ourselves what we did the last time. This time we will start by adding a new sprite to the game board. I show how it is done and all students focus their attention to me and my screen. Even though they follow the instructions carefully every now and then minor problems occur. Sometimes students can’t find the right place on a keyboard, or sometimes there is a mistake in the code. But I can’t walk over to the student to help her!
This is because I’m in the class room only as a picture on the screen. The class room is in South Korea some 7 000 kilometers (4 300 miles) away from my teacher’s desk in Finland. I am still able to help the poor student of course. I can lift up my keyboard to the camera and show the right key, or I can look up her computer screen on my big screen which shows all the screens of the students. I can take control of her computer with my mouse and show the mistake in the code and correct it myself if necessary. The distance is not a problem when the connection is as good as we have. We use Cisco’s high end system which delivers HD quality video stream and all the computers screens to both sides without any delay.
The distance is not a problem but it does make the teaching a bit more challenging. We tend to forget how meaningful physical presence is in human communication. We don’t just exchange propositions (written or verbal) but our bodies send messages too. There is an evolutionary reason for this. As descendants of pack animals we automatically react to postures and positions of other bodies around us. For animals this is necessary for example for fleeing the predators fast.
I realize the meaning of embodiment better now when I don’t have it with the Korean kids. I would love to walk over to them and pat them on the shoulder for good job. Sometimes when the back row is not paying attention I wish I could go stand next to them and make them wake up just by being there. What do I do in these situations then? I make up for the loss of physical connection by paying more attention to the mental connection. I’ve studied the Korean culture and few words in Korean to make them feel more familiar with me. I learn to pronounce their names right and talk to them directly, by first calling by name and staring as much in to their eyes as I can by staring straight to the camera. I also make sure that we have fun during the class. We have breaks with coding and we joke around with toys and ask silly questions and laugh even when we don’t get all the jokes, or especially when we don’t get the jokes, because it of course happens a lot!