The loneliness of the open autonomous learner

People like to be recognized for their contribution. In a large social network, a big class or a community, folks who work hard contributing a lot don’t necessarily do it for the recognition — they do it to share and help. But anonymity can be lonely, like being alone in a crowd or doing a good job at work and having nobody notice.

Students in large classes often feel like this. When I attended UCLA for two strange quarters many years ago, I sat in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. I was completely anonymous. The brilliant professor on stage couldn’t have seen my hand even if I’d felt encouraged to raise it, which I wasn’t. The discussion section was where I could talk and ask questions. My teaching assistant got to know me, not my prof. She gave me feedback, so I knew that I was contributing appropriately.

Entering a large online class, social network, or online professional community feels like that large lecture hall, except there’s no stage. Instead, it’s like an ancient Greek agora, the big open space where Athenian citizens gathered to make political decisions. With so many people, only those with the best speaking skills got the attention and were able to make their point (thus the high profits for Sophists, much to the disgust of Socrates). The others could only listen, and weren’t necessarily encouraged to raise their hand.

Independent learning, even with the affordances offered by online communities and classes, can feel the same way. Autonomy is great. It enables learners to create their own Personal Learning Environments and be self-directed. Many people have the desire for autonomy — some studies have correlated it with happiness and as a preventative for depression. But does that mean they want to be alone and unrecognized?

If the drive toward social online connections tells us anything, it tells us that people want to be both autonomous and recognized. We want our own profiles, our own apps, but to be part of a network of friends or colleagues. Contributions must be more than acknowledged; they must be appreciated. It is very lonely to post hundreds of tweets or updates, and have no one respond. In online classes, one may post the required number of times in a forum, but have no one reply while others are engaged in conversation.

I heard Leigh Blackhall referenced yesterday in a presentation by Gardner Campbell, assigned for DS106 Digital Storytelling by Jim Groom, then hours later read Leigh’s What Am I Doing? post. I had been following Leigh because of his un-PhD idea (I am also a frustrated non-PhD person), but he sees lack of response on his education posts.

Leigh didn’t know I was there. And perhaps it’s like teaching, and I don’t know who I’m influencing with my work. And maybe all the people who learn autonomously and in the open also feel a bit lonely, because they can’t know the impact they’re having, and one would think that with ones work available all over the world, there’d be more than a comment or two. Is there thus an inherent loneliness that goes along with autonomous learning, even (or especially) when it’s open?

Photo by Padraic Woods

6 comments to The loneliness of the open autonomous learner

  • I understand exactly the feeling you describe (and am glad that you have connected with Leigh, who has been a long time hero, maverick and at the same time all around good guy in person).

    My suggestion is that we need to think of being social and concepts of loneliness in a different way online, that is, to remove the expectation of a reply– like in Gardner’s presentation, are we doing an emotional facelift of how we operate face to face and expect it to be the same online?

    What I mean is, if you put out a message, and do not hear a reply, can we refrain from thinking “No one hears me, it is lonely and cold out in space.” A valuable insight for me in the early web days was the realization that the majority of people will visit your web site, they will not come in through your front door, they will not let you know they were there, and you will never know they were there.

    That does not make you alone -online. If we can let go of the self-deprecating notion that is we post something and nobody responds that no one heard it (tree falling in the internet woods)– that is do we say something online to say it, or do we need to have the affirmation that we are heard? (I for one crave the affirmation, but do not take it always negatively if there is not the sound of a tree falling).

    No one makes us feel lonely, we do that to ourselves. I do firmly believe that if you keep at the participation level, be it tweeting, likgin, posting, commenting, sharing– eventually you will connect. The act of doing these things will, in a large, theoretical crowdsourced ideal world, decrease that perceived loneliness for others.

    I can guarantee- if you participate to the online space, you are never really alone. But let go of the expectation of the reply, that way, when ti comes, it is a net bonus, rather than the lack if it being a net loss.

  • Great conversation. I don’t think we pay enough intellectual or emotional attention to the physicality of online learning. Or to put it another way, our rhetoric about presence, interaction, etc, doesn’t seem to create a space for the experience of a body sitting at a keyboard somewhere. I’m not entirely sure how to apply some of work I’ve read and done on the issue of embodiment or materiality, to our conversations, but the theme generally concerns me. It does so first because it feels absent, and second because I think there are very important implications and applications to address. For example issues across domains of race, age, gender, sexuality, dis-ability, are all fundamentally embodied experiences. They don’t disappear solely because one is online, a myth I believe needs to be challenged. Anyway, just some thoughts 🙂

  • Alan and Suzanne, perhaps this is a gap in our thinking. Like Alan writes, “we need to think of being social and concepts of loneliness in a different way online” — an excellent notion! We tend to see online “communities” in the aggregate, and the perception may indeed take us further from the bodies sitting at the machines. The very aloneness of being at the computer may be putting too much pressure on the “online world” to respond. Adjusting the expectations that online will duplicate face-to-face may take some time, but does seem necessary.

    I think there needs to be more thought/work/discussion on this…

  • Great reflection, Lisa, and love the conversation w/ Alan and Suzanne. I’m chewing on the ideas. Let me throw a couple more in the pot for stirring.

    1. Online interaction is designed for a group, but experienced by an individual sitting at a computing machine. (Computer, iPad, phone, etc.) We are constructing the rest in our minds with often little of that small, iterative feedback that allows us to check our assumptions and all the stuff that is not spoken or written.

    2. Imposter syndrome. We think others are having a terrific time, coping well, feeling included and we are the only ones feeling lonely. Uh uh. My less than scientific research shows most of us feel the outsider — even the people that most of us would say ARE the insiders.

    3. Building on Suzanne’s notion of physicality – what happens when we pay attention to our bodies while we interact online. Stop sometime and observe yourself. Ourselves. It would be interesting to share and I suspect we may find something that relates to our experience. I.e. when do you smile when reading or typing? Frown? Slump. Sit up straight? Fidget? Sigh? Maybe we should try a week or a day of journals.

    Finally, I’m listening, Lisa. 🙂

  • Thanks, Nancy. Yes, it’s odd how everyone feels they’re looking in the windows at the party – it seems I heard about a study on that a number of years ago. I just heard today about Sherry Turkle’s book “Alone Together“. I wonder whether it relates to these issues?

  • I have her book on my radar screen!