Virtualizing Music Changes How We Experience Music

Long before the internet disrupted nearly everything about our culture, Marshall McLuhan popularized the idea that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964). In other words, mediums are not neutral. Therefore, switching mediums impacts how content is received, and in some cases, dramatically changes the experience of content. Consider the way the recording of music changes almost everything about how we usually experience music. As John Dyer explains: Once recording technology was invented, a new, virtualized form of music created an entirely different set of social practices around music and fundamentally changed the relationship of artist and audience. … Early recorded music generally was played through speakers around which a crowd could gather, but the creation of the Walkman and headphones not only altered the relationship of the artist to the audience but also the audience members to themselves” (Dyer, 2017). 

Recorded music isn’t just music in a different medium; it is a fundamentally different experience of music. As a rule, the virtualization of music modifies how we experience music because of the way it changes the relationships around music. As Dyer (2017) concludes, “Listening to music was no longer the same kind of communal culture experience but instead became a commodity purchased by an individual to be used how he or she pleased.” 

So Virtualizing Education Won’t Change How We Experience Education?

If it is true that the “virtualization” of music changes how we experience music and leads to its inevitable commodification, then isn’t it likely that the virtualization of other cultural experiences will follow this pattern? As a test case, consider how the virtualization of education is impacted when mediated through the internet. First, the relationship between teacher and students changes. In an online course, a student may never see their teacher’s face. By contrast, the ancients believed that a teacher’s authority flowed not just from content mastery, but from their very person—their ethos. For this reason, the Roman philosopher Seneca advised the potential student: “Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector and pattern” (Seneca, ca. 65 B.C.E./1917). This is a far cry from the virtual “teacher presence” prescribed by advocates of online learning (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999). 

Without great effort, a face to face teacher is difficult to replicate online. A subtle shift in vocabulary demonstrates the way online education theorists acknowledge this. In online education, the teacher is sometimes referred to as a “teaching presence,” which “may be provided by any of the participants in a community of inquiry” (Garrison, et al, 1999). This “community of teachers” sounds good in theory, but unless every piece of the educational experience is designed and facilitated well, it can quickly devolve into the blind leading the blind. Additionally, due to the internet’s tendency to commoditize everything it touches, a student’s access to their teacher’s soul-expressing face quickly melts away, only to be replaced by disembodied call centers (Anderson, 2003), or A.I. bots. 

The Interaction Equivalency Theorem

Nevertheless, Anderson (2003) argues that what is lost by the lack of high-level student-teacher interaction can be compensated for with other forms of interaction. He theorizes that: Deep and meaningful formal learning is supported as long as one of the three forms of interaction (student-teacher; student-student; student-content) is at a high level. The other two may be offered at minimal levels, or even eliminated, without degrading the educational experience. This theorem highlights the philosophical shift away from teacher-centric education toward a community-based model. Although many benefits come from this shift, de-centring the teacher is difficult to compensate for.

The main problem with de-centring the teacher is that alternate forms of interaction introduce complex and unpredictable variables into an educational system. For example, high-level interaction between students doesn’t help them learn content if they are only pooling their ignorance. Worse though, asking the Community of Inquiry to act as the “teaching presence” may generate an “Ikea effect” that makes students feel like they have to do the work that would normally be a teacher’s job. Similarly, in a perfect world, high-level interaction between the student and content can serve as a valid substitute for student-teacher interactions, but this form of interaction is often challenging to achieve at a high level because of “the principle of least effort” (Kanuka, 2011). In fact, when this variable is tested, studies show that “just because opportunities for interactions were offered to students does not mean that students availed themselves of them, or if they did interact, that they did so effectively. The latter case is the more likely event…” (Abrami, et al, 2011, as cited in Kanuka, 2011). In other words, without a strong “teaching presence” students are less motivated to interact with the content or each other at a high level (Gunawardena, Lowe & Anderson, 1997, as cited in Garrison, 1999). Of course, a well-designed course by an expert teacher may lessen the impact of these variables, but they are still hard to control and predict, and therefore hardly equivalent variables to high-level student-teacher interactions. 

Silicon Valley Logic and Ancient Wisdom

Although advocates for online teaching suggest that the medium doesn’t have to degrade the quality of education, the internet’s tendency to commoditize everything as cheaply as possible means that removing or reducing an expert “teaching presence” from the educational equation is likely an inevitability. The suggestion that lesser quality or at least more complex alternatives can substitute for the expensive presence of an expert teacher is Silicon Valley logic and a far stretch from ancient wisdom. After all, nothing can compensate for the experience of “knowing” one’s teacher, and the so-called equivalencies of student-student or student-content interactions are poor, complicated, and unpredictable substitutes. Unfortunately, the suggestion that we can compensate for a genuine “teacher presence” ignores McLuhan’s wisdom that the medium is the message. And in this case, the message is clear, the virtualization of education is likely to de-centre the teacher-student relationship, add an “Ikea effect” to student-student relationships, and radically commoditizes content (over embodied relationship) as the essential telos of education.

“The way to wisdom is long if one follows the precepts but short if one follows the patterns.” 



Anderson, T. (2003). Getting the Mix Right Again: An Updated and Theoretical Rationale for Interaction. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 4(2).

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2), 87-105. 

Dyer, J. (2017). The Virtualization of Culture and the Need for an Embodied Christian Alternative | Christian Research Institute. Christian Research Journal, 40(05). 

Heather Kanuka. “Interaction and the Online Distance Classroom: Do Instructional Methods Effect the Quality of Interaction?” 23 (2011-12-01 2011): 143-56. Accessed 2020-06-30T17:19:29. 

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media; the Extensions of Man. 1st ed. New York,: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales. Translated by Richard M. Gummere. Vol. 1. The Loeb Classical Library. London: W. Heinemann, 1917. (Original work published ca. 65 C.E.).

An Ancient Critique of the “Interaction Equivalency Theorem”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *