Let Me Have Your Divided Attention: The Problem of Reverse Absent Presence

Have you ever walked by someone you swore was talking to you until you realized they had their bluetooth in their ear?  Have you had a conversation with a friend who can’t stop stairing at their smartphone because they are engaged in a Facebook chat?  If this sounds familiar, you have experienced absent presence. 

What is Absent Presence?
Absent presence is a term used to describe divided or diverted consciousness where one is physically present but emersed in a virtual world of engagement.  This engagement is typically faciliated through a smartphone, a tablet device or some sort of computer that has internet access transporting the consciousness of a person to a virtual space rather than their physical space.  If we experience this in our daily lives, imagine the problem this phenomenon poses to educators. 

Reverse Absent Presence
Much has been said about absent presence because of how technology has changed human interaction however not much has been said about what I call reverse absent presence.  Consider the individual taking an online course who is supposed to be fully engaged in the virtual environment but who is absent from the virtual environment and present in the physical environment.  This person could be watching T.V. instead of a lecture or having a drink with a friend instead of participating in a classroom chat discussion.  In the context of education, online schools are growing at an exponential rate.  Eventually, online students will be the norm and the majority of classrooms, if not all, will be virtual.  Why then is no one talking about reverse absent presence.  How will educators operating in a virtual environment combat diverted consciousness in the physical space when people can take courses in their pajamas in bed?  What about the person who works from home?

The Challenge for Distance Educators
Ironically, we already see reverse absent presence when we are not paying attention to a Webinar running in the background while we eat our lunch at our desk or hold a conversation with a colleague.  We see it when people are on a conference call but no one is engaging because they are not paying attention.  Call it absent presence, reverse absent presence, diverted attention, divided consciousness or simply daydreaming, how will the distance educator deal with this phenomnon when they can’t even see their student?  Distance educators have to be even more engaging than their traditional campus counterparts.  What, then, are the best practices, techniques, methods, or models for distance educators to engage students in an online environment?  In an online environment with synchronous and asynchronous communication, how will distance educators strategically combat reverse absent presence?  One day, might communicating through technology be the norm?  Will we be seeing articles talking about how to get people to focus more on the virtual world and to snap out of the real (physical) world?  Written communication has already become a lost art – will face-to-face communication be next to go?

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