Teaching the disembodied: Othering and activity systems in a blended synchronous learning situation

  • Una Cunningham University of Canterbury & Stockholm University
Keywords: Distance, Campus, Blended, Flexible, Synchronous, Skype, VOIP, Activity Theory, Othering, Social Presence


This study examines what happens when online and campus students participate in real time in the same campus classroom. Before this study, postgraduate students studying online in a course intended primarily as professional development for language educators were taking the course through reading the course literature including assigned articles, writing reflective texts in the asynchronous forum and doing the course assignments. They had a very different experience than the campus students who met weekly for discussion of the reading. Some online students were not active enough in the course, and showed low levels of engagement. The online students were invited to participate in scheduled campus classes via Skype on iPads. After some hesitation, four of the six online students took up this real-time participation option. Initial difficulties with the technology were addressed after seeking input from campus and online students. A series of adjustments were made and evaluated, including a move to a model in which three online students in different locations participated in a single Skype group video call on a laptop in the campus classroom rather than on multiple individual Skype calls on iPads. After the course, the online and campus students were asked to evaluate the experience of having physical and virtual participants sharing a physical space and to relate this experience to the asynchronous channels previously available to the participants. The comments of both groups of participants were interpreted in the light of previous work on social presence and of activity theory. It appears that student beliefs and student expectations lead to hidden challenges associated with mixing these groups of students, and the study concludes that unless teaching assistance is available, it is not easy to afford online students the same right to speak as campus students.

Author Biography

Una Cunningham, University of Canterbury & Stockholm University
Una Cunningham is an Associate Professor in Languages Teaching and Learning at the Department of Teacher Education at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Her research interests are in netbased learning and teaching, especially the learning and teaching of second or foreign languages. She has published three teaching books on the use of the Internet in schools, and has developed and taught classes in the language of electronic communication. She has been involved in distance education in various capacities since 1997. Her research has mostly been in describing various aspects of non-native language, and in  technology-enhanced learning. These interests are brought together in her current and forthcoming work on language and education in electronically mediated learning environments.
How to Cite
Cunningham, U. (2014). Teaching the disembodied: Othering and activity systems in a blended synchronous learning situation. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 15(6). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v15i6.1793
Research Articles