Replacing Physical with Virtual- We are both social and physical creatures

Working from home, virtual classes, Facebook- our relationships with those outside our family group are rapidly moving online. What does this mean for society and our social networks? What does this mean for education?


Most of us are still close with classmates from high school and/or college. Not everyone we were in school with of course, but those precious, golden few that will be friends for life. My sister, more than ten years after graduating from college, still meets up with a group of her college friends once a year. Since they went to Texas State, they usually meet around San Marcos and float the river.

Marin's college friends


My husband still considers his college roommate one of his closest friends and makes the effort to visit when we pass through their current hometown in Waco or catch them when they are visiting family near where we live. That is the key to these relationships- not just keeping in touch online through Facebook, but actually making time to travel to see each other in person.


Would these relationships even exist if they had earned their college degrees online? I don’t know or stay in touch with any of the people I completed my online degree alongside through UT Tyler. I made the effort to go to the actual graduation ceremony because I wanted a sense of closure and celebration- to feel like the degree was “real”. It was interesting to put names with faces of people I had worked with through online chat rooms to complete assignments, but they were strangers.


Studies show that social networks are key to our physical and mental health. A Ted talk by Nicholas Christakis discusses how social networks are related to obesity, divorce, depression, altruism, etc.  Those that we consider in our social network because of online apps may effect our perception of politics, religion, and view of life, but the physical connection, the richness of weaving our lives together, truly sharing joys and sorrows is lost online. Viewing a picture of a group of people posing at a dinner party pales in comparison to being at the table, hearing the laughter and musical cadence as people express their thoughts, the richness of the flavors of the drink and food while we bump shoulders, embrace and pat backs. The need for physical touch is a fundamental one. Baby brains don’t develop properly and they don’t learn to form social attachments if they are not held, played with, spoken to, or caressed. Even as adults we need to be touched and hugged. A simple touch releases endorphins, and research shows married couples live longer than unmarried people. Online relationships are poor substitutes for physical ones.


What does this mean for education and learning? Technology and online resources are amazing tools for helping students visualize and apply concepts they are learning in the classroom, but I am also aware of  discussions about online classrooms replacing the traditional classroom.


There are programs offered by many schools to allow students to re-take courses or earn their GED through computer courses. More and more students are earning dual credit hours by taking online courses through community colleges. It saves time and travel, but I had many students taking online physics in the school’s computer lab that would pop in my classroom and ask questions because they had a relationship with me and they saw me as a resource. I could often answer their question within a few minutes instead of them waiting for an email response from their online professor, or spending hours combing through their textbook trying to “teach themselves”. What if I hadn’t been there as a resource? How much time is actually saved when students are basically teaching themselves? How much are they truly retaining and comprehending when there is no verbal and physical interaction with their instructor or peers? I know that many people can learn this way. I personally prefer to look up material and read on my own, but I will admit that if someone is able to explain it to me and I can ask questions for clarification I learn it much faster, with more in-depth understanding. The motivation of learning on one’s own is also significantly weaker without face-to-face accountability.


After observing thousands of students that pass through my classrooms, I can say that the majority of them are kinesthetic learners. They need to physically move and interact to learn the material. Online learning is a tool- it is not a replacement for the relationships between classmates and teachers that is so vital for learning.


Not only in terms of educational value, but what is this doing to the societal structure and relationships that used to be formed through the shared experience of being in a club organization, church, or workplace together? Church attendance and club attendance is down.

“We knew that over the past 30 to 40 years, denominations had increasingly reported a decline in their numbers,” Marler says. “Even a still-growing denomination like the Southern Baptist Convention had reported slowed growth. Most of the mainline denominations were all reporting a net loss over the past 30 years.” 

Fraternal, service groups battle declining membership. 

It is so much effort to physically get up, get ready, and be at a specific location at a specific time.  There is a plethora of entertainment, education, and gossip at our fingertips but community groups, school, and the workplace are where so much of the community involvement and socialization used to occur. Instead, people now get a large majority of their information and social involvement online.  I don’t want to lose sight of the value of being physically present.


Not only physically being present, but mentally being present is so important for happiness. So often, when people are together, they spend their time on their phones, taking pictures of their food or their buddies out with them to post online. We are more concerned about the online appearance of what we did, rather than being mentally present and focused on the people we are with. Check out “Want to Be Happier? Stay in the Moment” a great TED talk on this topic by Matt Killingsworth.


We are focused on the imaginary community of people that read our posts and like our pictures. I blog as a way to process my life, practice my writing skills, and share resources. Online networks have their place and are amazing tools for connecting with people. My goal is to make the effort to use online media to arrange physical connection, and when I am physically present- make the effort to be mentally present. In terms of the importance of social connections and physical connections to our health and happiness- the foundation of our happiness may depend on it!   We are BOTH social and physical, let’s not let the virtual social connections replace our physical connections.


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