Volume 18 · Number 2 · Pages 188–198
Living in Mapworld: Academia, Symbolic Abstraction, and the Shift to Online Everything

Simon Penny

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Context: During the Covid pandemic, teachers and academics at all levels were abruptly required to learn and deploy generic online educational tools that do not adequately substitute for many classroom or lab practices. In the rush to make education viable during the pandemic, there was little time for critical analysis of the qualities of “online delivery,” especially with regard to embodied dimensions of cognition. Conventional academic styles of pedagogy and testing were commonly emulated. In the attempt to simply “keep the train on the rails,” there has been little time to assess what - cognitively or pedagogically - has been gained or lost. Problem: Computer and internet-based interactive applications have specific cognitive affordances and constraints that differ from the tangible embodied scenarios they sometimes purport to emulate. Traditional pedagogy in many disciplines entails a substantial component of “hands-on” learning, a complementary knowing how that enables practice, builds skills and provides metaphors and concepts. Existing software and interfaces do not cater well to training embodied skills, and perhaps cannot. In the absence of hands-on lab, studio and clinical experience that usually complements textbook-lecture-test styles of pedagogy, a knowing that (as opposed to knowing how) orientation was reinforced. The traditional recognition that embodied experience is an integral component of effective learning has been elided (similar elision occurs with respect to some online research practices. In emphasizing “problem-solving,” this instrumentalizing of a knowledge-that style of pedagogy usually elides the syncretic and creative cognitive corollary of problem framing. Method: I discuss online pedagogy and research from an enactive/embodied critical perspective and juxtapose case examples of embodied practices. Results: The conclusions drawn from this discussion are that important cognitive differences between face-to-face, hands-on pedagogy and research, and pedagogy and research conducted online are present and critical analysis of the situation is crucial for pedagogical and research effectiveness. Implications: Whether in pharmacology, mechanical engineering or social media, new technologies and technological systems often have unexpected effects when embedded in society. This is the case with online pedagogy. Critical assessment is overdue. Such will motivate new education research and human-computer design initiatives. Researchers in human-computer interaction, cognitive psychology, education design and other fields should take up the challenge. It remains a possibility that some embodied practices may simply not be compatible with online environments. It is incumbent upon institutions to take such issues seriously, or risk substantial impoverishment of the educational experience. Constructivist content: I analyze online pedagogy and research from an embodied and enactivist perspective, assessing the different qualities of sensorimotor engagement in screen-based activities as opposed to hands-on experiences. I argue that “knowing” is grounded in sensorimotorically multimodal embodied experiences, and recognize the limitations in the sensorimotor ecologies of online phenomena.

Key words: Content delivery, digital cultures, simulation, multimodality, online interaction, pandemic, pedagogy, performativity, sensorimotor.


Penny S. (2023) Living in mapworld: Academia, symbolic abstraction, and the shift to online everything. Constructivist Foundations 18(2): 188–198. https://constructivist.info/18/2/188

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