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Virtual relationships – behind a veil?

Cowan, John


John Cowan


As a personal development tutor, mentor, or critical friend in virtual learning environments, the writer has preferred to remain a virtual personality, somewhat behind a veil. That decision was once endorsed by a student’s feedback that “It’s easier to be frank with you about my learning difficulties – when you’re just a name at the foot of a screen.”
Aware of the published reservations (Joinson, 2003) regarding the possible negative effects of de-individuation, when social cues are filtered out or diminished online, the writer chose to explore the perceptions of the “other” parties in some of the virtual relationships which had developed in his purely or mainly digital communications as a tutor or mentor. In this modest enquiry, he sought to identify, understand, and possibly develop any significant features of the relationships established through his virtual support. In particular he wondered if the personalities in virtual contact had established personas therein, akin to their own self-perceptions.

Three undergraduates, two postgraduates and one academic, with each of whom the writer had had virtual working relationships, assisted in his enquiry. Members of each pairing summarised (without prior consultation):
• the nature and purpose of their communications;
• their perception of the other;
• their expectation of the other’s perception of them.
The analysis of these returns revealed general (if sometimes convoluted) agreement for each pair, in regard to:
• The purpose of the interaction;
• Their perceptions of the (virtual) other compared with the other’s self-perception;
• Their acceptance of the other’s perception of them;
• The beneficial impact of the relationship.

The six collaborators:
• Commonly used words with supportive associations;
• Often made mention of their affective needs and apprehensions;
• Noted and accepted some features in the writer’s descriptions of them of which they had not been fully aware.

The writer concludes that virtual relationships, featuring tutoring or mentoring with little or no face-to-face contact, can effectively support both cognitive development and the meeting of associated affective needs. Both participants in such exchanges can form perceptions of the other which are in accord with that person’s own self-perception.


Cowan, J. (2010). Virtual relationships – behind a veil?. In Proceedings of conference on “Academic Identities for the 21st Century”

Start Date Apr 1, 2010
End Date Apr 1, 2010
Publication Date 2010-04
Deposit Date Sep 7, 2012
Publicly Available Date Sep 7, 2012
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Book Title Proceedings of conference on “Academic Identities for the 21st Century”
Keywords Virtual learning environments; de-individuation; virtual relationships; digital communications; mentoring; tutoring;
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