Meditations on “A Meditation on Meditation and Embodied Presence”

Carrie Heeter has just shared with me a paper she’s written on meditation and embodied presence (Presence, Teleoperators and Virtual Environments 25-2, 2016) <edit available at>. Anyone who’s read my stuff will know that a large proportion of it is looking at how presence can support our online learning, and how the ideas of offline embodied cognition apply to our online experience. There are a few names that always crop up in my list of references and Prof. Heeter’s is one of them. One of the most influential of the papers I’ve read was one in which she looked at people’s identification with their on-screen image, (Heeter, C. (1995) Communication research on consumer VR. in F. Biocca and M.R. Levy (eds.), Communication in the age of virtual reality (pp. 191-218).)  About 25% identified with the screen, about half were mixed, and about 25% were so connected to their physical self that they couldn’t make the transition. In my PhD I found this 25% cropped up again and again  – I called them the Heeter Quarter – and there’s some neurological evidence that backs this up too (

Presence is a tricky concept to get your head around. I started my PhD in 2005 and all I managed to do by 2006 was come up with definitions of it. My supervisor (my second, the first had had enough,  I think) asked me what it means in general – outside of online learning. It was really difficult coming up with some hard definitions of it, we all know it when we see it, classroom presence, screen presence, stage presence, but nowhere actually broke it down. Poise, elan, attention.

And explaining it to others, I’d say “well you know you can sit in a boring lecture, you’re physically there, but you’re not really present, the same can happen onscreen, in fact some people never feel that sense of connection”.

I was going to write about this recently after reading Amy Cuddy’s book on Presence (well the bits I could read on the free preview). I got the general gist, which is that these ideas of presence can actually influence how you’re perceived, and so how you can be more successful if you develop them. She’s the person who did the research into power posing, i.e. standing in a Superman (or Wonder Woman) pose can make you feel more confident. I heard about this on a podcast, so initially thought of the hand raised flying pose, but it’s actually this one The book is basically lots of techniques on how to improve your presence. Body posture, voice, that sort of stuff. When I’m doing my staff development workshops on using Connect or SL, a lot is how to develop the online versions of body posture, and so on, in a nutshell the videoconferencing version of a firm handshake.

Back to Prof Heeter’s paper. It looks at meditation techniques, here are two guided meditations linked to from the paper. and I’ve tried them, she has a great voice for this sort of thing, though I was hindered by one of my cats choosing that moment to climb on me. I’m now having to write this with her asleep on top of me as a consequence.

The central thesis of the paper is that – going much further than I did when describing how sometimes we’re not really there, like if we’re in a boring lecture – that actually we’re not really present properly for the majority of the time. Interoception – paying attention to our bodies and our minds – can actually improve this sense of presence. Even the poor attempt I made at it while listening to those two audio links makes a difference, I think I do feel a bit more aware of the weight of Pasht on my chest now for example.

Promoting the experience of presence for the Heeter Quarter of my students I found very difficult. There was some correlation with how connected they were to their physicality (the three that struggled the most were a footballer, a cyclist and a sculptor – though that’s too small a sample size to really determine anything obviously). Other things like motivation helped, ideological opposition made it harder (see some of the work I did with Anna when she was Peachey not Childs for example e.g. (Childs, M. and Peachey, A. (2011) Love it or Hate it: Students’ Responses to the Experience of Virtual Worlds, in P. Jerry and L. Lindsey Experiential Learning in Virtual Worlds: Opening an Undiscovered Country, 81-91. Witney, UK: Inter-Disciplinary Press,).

The most recent paper by Prof Heeter looks at meditation activities done in VR as a means to encourage greater sense of virtual presence, and they seem to have worked. This reminds me of the meditation tree in Chilbo that Chris Collins (Fleep Tuque) created in SL. You could sit your avatar in an animation ball and it would go through some yoga poses and it was actually very calming. It would be really interesting to try some of the techniques mentioned in the paper in VR to see if it does help with a greater experience of presence. First steps though – I’m going to try the techniques IRL and see if they help with a greater experience of presence there.


On gobbledygook

One of the tasks for participants in the First Steps in Learning and Teaching course that I’m helping to convene at Brookes is to create an annotated bibliography. The discussion that has spun out from this has been fascinating. One of the participants particularly drew attention to this quote from Cathy Davidson: “if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?”

Academic gobbledygook is one of my main bugbears. There are so many different things that can make something impenetrable to readers, some of which are really difficult to avoid. One comes from the idea of threshold concepts, which are steps in learning that change your perspective on a field. These can be particularly difficult to teach, not least because, once you grasp them, it’s very difficult to then see things the way that you used to see them, and therefore communicate to people who then haven’t acquired that mindset. Concepts and the language to describe them become so intrinsic to the way you see the world that communicating with people who haven’t crossed over to that mindset becomes particularly difficult.

Another problem is that within a particular discipline, some terminology is regularly used, to an extent that you’re no longer aware that it’s a specialist terminology. I used to research into subcultures in virtual worlds, and ranted to friend that an editor of a paper asked me to explain the words “furry” and “steampunk”. I just felt it was asking me to talk down to my audience. Rather than commiserating, my friend responded with doubts about my own sanity, that I’d probably got too far into my own little world because those definitely aren’t words that everyone would recognise. Terminology is useful, when it encapsulates a range of ideas that would otherwise take a long time to unpack, but we always need to be prepared to unpack them for our audience. When doing a session on technology enhanced learning I always ask people to flag when I’ve used a term or abbreviation they don’t know.

What does annoy me in those situations though is, that you can get some people who act all outraged when you use a phrase that they don’t know. I was at one workshop on PDAs (that dates it) where someone in the audience got very belligerent with the person running it that she hadn’t said what PDA stood for. It was in the title of the session. Why attend if you don’t know what it is? Or spend 10 seconds googling it. Or work it out from context. Lack of understanding about terminology is a failing of two people, not just one. It’s not like spelling it out helps anyway. Anyone know what DVD stands for? Does knowing that help you watch a movie?

I think the one thing we can guard against more easily in the fight against gobbledygook is the tendency to pack ideas together so densely that sentence structure and following the conceptual trail of an argument, become difficult to follow. Sometimes this is sloppiness, but it is often because the writer is unsure about the validity, or even academicness, of the subject they’re talking about. The temptation is to dress it up with fancy words, or cram two previously unmatched ideas together and expect the audience to work out for themselves what those two concepts when blended actually mean. When I next come across an example of that I’ll add it to the comments below.

Being a reviewer for a few journals has helped me enormously here in being prepared to go through something a colleague or submitter has written and say “I don’t understand what this means”. I could probably have a go at working it out, or forming that synthesis in my head myself, but that’s not something a reader should have to do. That’s the author’s job.

Another thing that we do is placing so many caveats and double-negatives around something in order to actually avoid making as firm a statement. It’s not inconceivable to doubt that the absence of double-negatives can lead to the lessening of the propensity to reduce the failings in sensemaking of many statements.

Gobbledygook is just being a poor communicator. However there’s a form of academic writing that starts with a phrase like “it is not inconceivable that” and then uses this as an axiom in an argument. The master of this is Greenfield, who’s created a whole new career out of making statements like “children are on social media so much, it is not inconceivable that it will have an effect on them” and then working up to “given that there is such an effect what can we do to limit it.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s how the reasoning works). The discussion then subtly glosses over the element that the original statement is totally unsupported and a bit weasely. At no point is there actually any lying going on, it’s just a subtle misdirection that sounds like a valid argument. At this point we’ve got past gobbledygook and are into the realm of bullshit, which I will post about next time.


For great examples of bullshit, one of my favourite books is Fashionable Nonsense by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. I think if more people were primed to detect it, and have little less patience with it, we would all contribute to making academic writing a bit more accessible.


Online v offline communication

Realise it’s time to get back into blogging after my trip to Brazil and looking for inspiration went to the Daily Post … never fails … there’s a post on this How do you communicate differently online than in person, if at all? How do you communicate emotion and intent in a purely written medium?

Luckily I’ve got something to say on this, well I should have. It’s one of the core things I do research on – how do people communicate online. I’ve looked a lot at how people’s behaviour offline translates to online, and there’s no real consistency. The stereotypical transition is the quiet shy student in class, who when given the chance to communicate in an environment where they don’t feel so exposed, suddenly blossom into a talkative and dominant contributor. These students do exist, cyberdisinhibition is such a useful tool that any educator who doesn’t provide his or her students with a mechanism to communicate online as an intrinsic part of their course is a bit of a twat really. If you choose to limit communication to only the face-to-face activity of a classroom then you are acting to censor a proportion of the student body through your own apathy or laziness. My ability to communicate in a face-to-face situation is often very limited. I don’t think very well while someone else is talking, I need silence to collect my thoughts. So in a conversation I need a second or two pause before I can start talking. I was recently at a meeting where that break didn’t happen for about the first hour of the meeting. Ideas got tossed backwards and forwards, some of which I didn’t have anything to contribute to, some of which I could have done, but didn’t because at all times the start of one person’t contribution overlapped with the end of the previous person’s contribution. I spent that hour feeling more and more frustrated, and more and more withdrawn. I guess feeling the after effects of flu slowed me down a bit more than normal too. Finally they all shut up long enough for me to make my contribution. It took about 10 minutes, and they waited until I’d finished, but I would have much preferred a dialogue to a monologue. I think that’s why I prefer online communication to offline. It’s just so much easier to get a word in.

Online does have disadvantages though. I think tone is sometimes difficult to read. Sure we should get into the habit of using :-p when we don’t mean something or flagging that we’re being ironic because putting little pseudo html around phrases <sarcasm> is just so hard </sarcasm>. But even when I’m reading stuff by people I know really well, I can still read them as literal when actually they’re meant ironically. But then the same is true face to face. If not more so. The number of arguments I’ve had with (now ex) partners because I had a particular expression on my face, or a tone, which they misinterpreted because they had a much greater confidence in their ability to read body language than was warranted. There’s nothing more annoying than being told what you actually feel by someone who doesn’t know how to read expressions and think they do. Really there’s something to be said for putting a paper bag on our heads before we begin a conversation with some people. Or on theirs.

Another reason why some learners prefer online to offline is that they can turn it off when they need to get back to work. A study I did at Warwick a while ago (with the acronym BLUPs) identified this as a big incentive. Students could drop onto chat if they needed some help, could stay around to socialise a bit but then go offline when they needed to. online was more manageable.

There are some students who really don’t like communication online but are fine offline. Another study I did looked at students’ responses to using virtual worlds. In the discussion we had about it, the majority of the comments were negative, by about a 2 to 1 ratio. In the survey the students were positive about it in about a 3 to 1 ratio. It appeared that those 1 in 4 students who hated the online interaction were those dominating the face-to-face discussion and were about 3 times more active than those that liked it. The interpretation of what they were saying about online interaction was that they were so at ease with offline, had such a fluency and ability with it, that they felt the loss more than those who liked online. In effect they had lost their superiority and were railing against it.

As a result I’m always deeply suspicious of people who demand that all their interactions take place face-to-face. I agree there is something very worthwhile about meeting in that way, at the moment I’m taking time out to meet a lot of projects all over the UK, taking several hours to travel to do it. The issues with ensuring everyone gets to speak don’t arise (since I’m chairing them), and it does produce a lot more ideas, and comaraderie and trust. All of those things. But people who refuse to interact online? My first thought is why do they want to make sure they can limit what’s being said. Purely offline people tend to be assholes in my experience.

The final two ways that offline to online can translate are those students who are fine in both modes (which is good). But really any of these are fine. The ones I do worry about are those that don’t communicate in either mode. Again in the BLUPs study the few students that fell into this category really seemed to be at risk and unis do very little to proactively seek these out, tending to respond just to students who flag that they’re struggling. Like drowning people, the ones who are really in trouble are the ones who aren’t saying anything, not the ones waving.

Oh and I’ve realised that I’ve pretty much gone off topic. But in short answering the question, use emoticons, hashtags, pseudo html, different fonts. Emotion can actually be conveyed much more precisely online than offline.