The Educational Encounter in the Digital Sphere

The critical concept of “educational encounter” is an important key to exploring and experimenting with the emancipatory potentials of online education in the context of the neoliberal academic regime. Due to the massive and rushed migration of educational processes to online modes in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, this question has become more urgent than ever. In the pre-pandemic era, the ideology of neoliberalism had already reduced education into a standardized and infinitely replicable commodity. The whole educational process is being forced into a straitjacket of quantifiable outcomes in order to produce a labour force completely compatible with the needs of the global labour market.

The recent elaborations on the concept of “educational encounter” by the Dutch philosopher of education Gert Biesta has provided a way to develop a concrete perspective on the subversion of neoliberal spaces in higher education. According to Biesta (2006), the emancipatory educational practice of the “educational encounter” has three main components: (1) It requires trust between the teacher and the learner because it is risky and unpredictable.; (2) Transcendental violence, because difficult questions are asked, and difficult encounters may arise. The most deeply held beliefs of the participants can suddenly be put in question; (3) Responsibility of the educator who must support the learner in becoming an autonomous, “unique, singular being.” Taking his insights further, we can ask if such “educational encounters” can take place on digitally mediated platforms? And how?

A study by Natalier and Clarke (2015) identified some challenges in the pursuit of a pedagogy of educational encounter in the context of online education in the contemporary neoliberal university. According to them, “The education encounter suggests the value of critically considering the interaction of online education technologies and practices, relationships between educators and students, and institutional administration and management practices.” They found that the university teaching staff they interviewed generally reported the absence of “encounter” online. Many teachers felt a lack of feedback and dearth of engagement from students on online education platforms. They found it hard to discern the subjectivities of their students and fathom their interpretations of teaching materials. In spite of this, most of the faculty interviewed did not view online technology as itself posing insuperable obstacles in pursuing a progressive pedagogical agenda. More than anything else, it was the heavier workload required by online education as compared with face-to-face, which made it difficult for teaching staff to create spaces for educational encounters while simultaneously addressing the institutional and professional demands required of them by the technocratic, metrics-obsessed academic auditing regime. The pressure to conform to “standardized patterns and outcomes of interaction” often won out over their efforts to undertake experiments in the online learning process. In another study, Smith and Jeffrey (2013) found that the opportunities for educational encounter opened up by “teachable moments,” which also fleetingly arise in online modes, are most often missed by the teacher.

These more pragmatic insights into the contemporary online educational situation can be contrasted with those of the technological pessimists who believe that online education is inherently lacking any emancipatory potential. The Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s (2013) dystopian perspective on digital communication, while representing a useful corrective to the postmodern celebratory and utopian tendency which early on greeted the introduction of digital communication, is representative of a total technological pessimism which makes online “educational encounters” theoretically impossible. (By implication, Felix Guattari’s notion of “postmedia” is, in its very spirit, diametrically opposed to Han’s formulations.)

Han observes that the “visually poor” digital medium “strips communication of tactility and physicality.” Other researchers have noticed that the main difficulty in online communication is traceable to the way the normal communication process has been deprived of the richness of its non-verbal and contextual dimensions. For Han, the increasing use of digital communication makes direct contact with real people recede into irrelevance until we supposedly end up being enclosed in narcissistic spaces. Another shortcoming of the digital medium which Han latches on to is the fact that eye contact is impossible using the currently available technology. We are always looking past each other. Doubtless, eye contact is one of the most meaningful aspects of the face to face encounter (this is especially true among Germans in fact). As of this writing, several software and /or hardware remedies are currently being devised to address this shortcoming, which may lead to more or less convincing or more or less artificial results. Clearly, this is not an insurmountable limitation. However, Han derives from this merely technical flaw, the conclusion that it “points to a fundamentally missing gaze – that is, to the missing other.” For Han, therefore, “The touchscreen does not look,” and that, digital communication is “becoming more and more bodiless and faceless.” In sum, the face on the screen becomes a pure virtual image. It may be laughing or crying but there is no one behind it. It is nothing but a pure spectacle for the viewer. The “irruption of the other,” so essential for the educational encounter, has become an impossibility. In many respects, this fantastical account of the total realization of the solipsistic neoliberal subject seems implausible on many levels. While it is true that his thesis on digital communication must be situated within Han’s total philosophy of technology, some critical remarks may be brought up at this point.

Recent researchers have been able to explain the fatigue induced by Zoom meetings in terms quite similar to Han’s observations, but have formed rather different conclusions (Cauterucci, 2020; Jiang, 2020; Sander & Bauman, 2020). For example, due to the “visually poor” nature of Zoom communications, it is found that the brain is forced to continually fill in the missing non-verbal cues and round out the lacking contextual information in order to adequately process, piece together, and interpret the available stream of images and sounds. Moreover, the lack of feedback which is especially felt in a virtual meeting consisting of several people, results in a tendency to overcompensation in the communicative performance of each participant, which is, once again, exhausting. These findings do not even take into account circumstances where weak and unreliable connectivity impede or frustrate digital communication. One sees here that the impoverished visuality of digital communication is not just accepted as is by the human cognitive mechanism. The fatigue felt by partipants is due to cognitive compensation as well as communicative overcompensation. The partaking subjects subconsciously refuse to accept the vanishing or receding of the other. The friction and resistance offered by the digital medium and encountered by the participants in communication, rather than cutting off communication, provokes instead an extraordinary effort by humans to come in contact with each other or catch each other’s eye. Han’s argument bypasses the rough materiality of technology and metaphorizes it to the extreme. He cannot accurately describe the human encounter in the digital sphere because he has insufficiently thematized the problem of the human encounter with and response to technology. Naturally, Han’s conclusions, were they taken at face value, would render any genuine “education encounter” impossible.

The German existentialist philosopher Otto Friedrich Bollnow’s (1903-1991) reflections on the concept of “encounter” (“Begegnung” in German) as a pedagogical notion can permit the further development of its implications for online education in the digital era. Bollnow’s first exposition of this was in an essay entitled “Begegnung und Bildung” (Encounter and Education) which was published in 1955. (One must also not neglect to mention that Bollnow, like Heidegger, was a committed Nazi.)

The sense of “Begegnung” in German is not so different from “encounter.” The English word was borrowed from the Old French word “en/contre” means “against” or “counter to.” Similarly, the German verb “begegnen” comes from the root “gegen” which means “against.” Bollnow clarifies that Begegnung is not simply a meeting (or “Treffen”) with someone or something, rather, he stresses that aspect of Begegnung which means collision. The Begegnung of two entities means that that they are both actively in motion upon crashing into each other. Moreover, the encounter, according to Bollnow (as with Biesta), has something of the unplanned, unforeseen, and accidental about it. An encounter reveals the severity or hashness of the external world independent of the subject and may thus be terribly unpleasant or painful. An encounter leaves one “shaken” (erschüttert) to the very core of her being. Someone who has experienced it often hears the words, “You must change your life” (Du mußt dein Leben ändern). Bollnow’s innovation resides in his broadening of the use of the “encounter” beyond that between two persons to the encounter between a person and an object, that is to say, an “encounter” between a student and educational materials or objects, historical, philosophical or literary. Since an educational encounter cannot be planned or orchestrated in advance, the role of the teacher is to prepare or make available to the student, the conditions of possibility for such an encounter. Though he was critical of a certain understanding of Bildung which saw the educational process as an unbroken and even process, Bollnow did not intend to replace the classical German Humboldtian concept of “Bildung” with Begegnung. He wanted to transform and complete the notion of Bildung with Begegnung. Without Bildung, the student would not only not be strong enough to face the shattering experience of the encounter but would also be incapable of recognizing an encounter even if it were underneath his or her very nose.

Bollnow does not say much about the role of the teacher in his essay, but his notion of encounter can be translated into Freirean terms as a triadic “co-intentional” relationship between student and teacher who are both involved as subjects in the unveiling of objective reality. Though Freire preferred to speak of dialogue rather than encounter, and his aim was social transformation rather than individual existential crisis, there is much in common in his approach and that of Bollnow (both were influenced by Martin Buber). For Freire and Bollnow, the teacher’s function is to direct or guide the student’s attention to an object which would allow them both to reflect fundamentally on its meaning.

In summary, Han’s approach is vitiated by two shortcomings. The first, as mentioned above, is that his representation of the human – machine encounter lacks sufficient structures of mediation. This encounter is understood here, not as a smooth and inexorable operation which Han likes to compare to the surface of a  smartphone, but in the Bollnowian sense productive of friction, resistance, and difficulty. The second issue is that Han, focusing exclusively on the dyadic relationship between two subjectivities, has not been able to take advantage of the more complex intersubjective perspective which can be opened up by the triadic self-other-object relationship. Due to these shortcomings, the paths for encounter were therefore prematurely and arbitrarily closed off. A triadic perspective can allow a better comprehension of how a teacher and a student can together take up and rigorously work through an object of study, with all its hazards and risks, within the medium of digital communication, with all its glitches, frustrations, imperfections, and defects. The educational encounter in the digital sphere is clearly not impossible but it is something which must not only challenge the disastrous neoliberalization of the university but must also necessarily subvert the digital capitalist regimes of surveillance and control.


Biesta, G.J.J. (2006) Beyond Learning: Democratic education for a human future. Boulder: Paradigm.

Bollnow, O.F. (1955). Begegnung und Bildung. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 1, 10–32.

Cauterucci, C. (2020, May 12). I Will Not Be Attending Your Exhausting Zoom Gathering. Slate Magazine.

Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 30th Anniversary Edition. New York & London: Continuum.

Han, Byung-Chul, (2013). Im Schwarm: Ansichten des Digitalen. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz.

Jiang, M. (2020, April 22). The reason Zoom calls drain your energy. Www.Bbc.Com.

Natalier, K., & Clarke, R. (2015). Online Learning and the Education Encounter in a Neo-Liberal University: A Case Study. Higher Education Studies, 5 (2).

Sander, L., & Bauman, O. (2020). 5 reasons why Zoom meetings are so exhausting. The Conversation.

Ramon Guillermo is Professor at the Center for International Studies (CIS) at the University of the Philippines – Diliman. He is the author of the novel “Makina ni Mang Turing” (UP Press 2013) while his most recent co-authored book is “3 Baybayin Studies” (UP Press 2017). He received his PhD in Southeast Asian Studies (Austronesistik) from the University of Hamburg, Germany. Most of his work lies in the domain of what has lately been called “digital humanities.”

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