There are many arguments for online communication.

There’s no need to advertise it. From email through chatting to VoIP like Skype: We all do it.

But there are growing concerns that these activities are increasingly unsocial: That chatting is a cheap substitute for real conversation and that Social Media’s defining characteristic is not social at all but rather narcissistic.

The Empathy Deficit In Online Communication

In 2010 researchers from the University of Michigan analyzed “data on empathy” among almost 14,000 college students over a period of 30 years.  And what they’ve found is that students of today show up to 40 % less empathy compared to the 80ies or 90ies with a significant drop around 2000.

Are our children turning into self-possessed narcissists? And why is that so?

The researchers speculated that the reason for this deficit was partly to be found in online communication:

“With so much time spent inter­act­ing with oth­ers online rather than in real­ity, inter­per­sonal dynam­ics such as empa­thy might cer­tainly be altered.”

In response to this study, an exper­i­men­tal psy­chol­ogy PhD stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Bris­tol notes that part of the problem of this kind of communication is “the inabil­ity of cer­tain tech to trans­mit sig­nals con­ducive to good empathic rela­tions”.

In other words: All the important non-verbal communication such as body language, tone of voice, etc. are lost when chatting, for example. But how important are those nonverbal signals in reality?

Professor Nina W. Brown, Ed.D., LPC, an “expert on narcissism’s effects on relationships” writes:

Nonverbal communication carries the “real message,” the emotional and/  meaning or intent. This means that you may be unaware of the message your body position, eyes, facial expression, and tone of voice are conveying to the other person. And, while the other person is reading and reacting to the real message on mostly an unconscious level, the verbal and conscious portion of the messages are in conflict, the nonverbal message takes priority.

In short: nonverbal communication carries just as much (or even more) weight as the verbalized content of a conversation.

If nonverbal communication is the key to developing empathy, empathy is the key to all genuine social skills for the simple reason that understanding how another person sees a topic, conflict or problem greatly increases the options and strategies to discuss, solve or explain.

Online Learning and Social Skills

Some people are convinced that online education, as in real-time online learning with a tutor, is an unsocial activity.

The argument is that since a person sits in front of a screen and doesn’t leave the house in order to interact with classmates or the teacher in a classroom, her social skills won’t develop.

The conclusion then is that no matter how unfortunate the condition of education in public schools (crowded classrooms, over-worked teachers, etc.), we still need to send our children there to acquire social skills.

There are two assumptions in this kind of argumentation:

  • Social skills are more important than the actual teaching process and its results or the content of the syllabus
  • Social skills are automatically acquired by “rubbing” as it were, against other students or teachers

Both of these assumptions are rather blurry because neither is it clear what social skills actually are nor how they really are acquired.

Nonverbal Communication in The Classroom

In an average class in an average school there’s a gamut of people, opinions and conflicts.

Usually, there is one teacher and 20 to 30 times as many students.

For now, let’s just suppose that the teacher is aware of the nonverbal communication signals he’s broadcasting through the tone of voice, body language and even clothing. (Unfortunately, many teachers aren’t aware of these signals, at all!)

From the smallest question-answer volley to more elaborate argumentative skirmishes, the teacher acts as a role-model in the way he communicates with the class.

Due to the large groups consisting of very different people that make up a class, there’s a lot of interference, disturbances and interruptions. These interferences can (theoretically) all be used to help students develop empathy and understanding but more often than not it simply turns into a power-play of challenging and establishing authority.

This is the daily friction most students and teachers have become used to.

The assumption that this is the stuff empathy and therefore social skills are made of is not just false but somewhat naive.

Ok. So maybe the classroom isn’t always that great for actively learning social skills. How about the school-yard, then? Surely, this is where life’s true lessons are learned, no?

Actually, the chances for acquiring social skills in the school-yard are not significantly higher than by just hanging out on the street.

The pressure of peer groups and complex fault lines between different ages and gender do make up for a lot of conflict. Conflict, which sometimes leads to insights, sometimes not.

But again, social friction does not automatically create social skills.

Therefore, the argument that we need schools because there we learn social skills is utterly pointless.

How Online Learning Improves Social Skills

Real-time private tutoring online has many advantages which have been stated numerous times.

But how about the social skills?

Does online learning develop empathy?

In 2005, three researchers made an interesting experiment:

The setting was a typical one-on-one online tutoring session with microphone and webcam, enabling the student to hear and see the teacher and vice versa.

On top of it the researchers installed a clever display of additional signals such as respiration, pulse, and skin-conductivity giving teacher and student a direct feedback of how the other is feeling. These signals are not normally mentioned as part of non-verbal communication because without monitoring instruments we are unaware of them. Nevertheless, in this experiment they were used as an indicator as to whether a person is excited, bored, etc.

What the researchers found is that

Sharing this information reciprocally over the internet can engender the experience of empathy in remote, online interaction.

While the researchers admit that this study was only a preliminary step, it nevertheless shows the importance of non-verbal signals in the online learning process.

Because even without such complex contraptions, traditional non-verbal signals are active in online learning!

Body language can be conveyed through a webcam. The tone of voice travels through the microphone and speaker.

On top of that studies like the above show that online learning allows the introduction of further signals. Emoticons are often ridiculed but even a little smiley face or thumbs-up icon is a good example of a nonverbal signal already used in online learning.

Whether it is true that the basis of all social skills is empathy and empathy largely relies on non-verbal signals, online learning does not reduce those signals but can even extend the range of these signs on both a theoretical and practical level.

But in the end, no argumentation will suffice to prove these points.

Conclusion

As online teachers or founders of educational start-ups we have to provide people with direct proof, not just feeding them off with interactive exercises and games but facilitating communication experiences that speak for themselves.

As students interested in the potentials of online learning, don’t settle for someone droning on for 30 minutes over a PowerPoint presentation and then asking you a few questions at the end. That’s not online learning. That’s like watching television.

If you’re interested in language learning, I can’t recommend a particular “marketplace” because the quality of teachers on those platforms highly differs and systems such as star-ratings or testimonials often tell less than they should, but if you do want to experience online learning live and in action, I’d recommed you sign up for a trial lesson with one of my colleagues, whom I all know personally, here.

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