The Importance of Differentiating Remote from Virtual

Series: “Strategies for Dealing with Confinement”

 By: Gabriel E. Levy B.

In recent days, strong criticism has been levelled from various quarters against emergency initiatives based on tele-education and tele-working proposed by governments as part of measures to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Although shocking, most of these criticisms are based on emotions and hasty and deterministic assessments of the effects of these technologies in times of confinement.

But while remote activities during home confinement may reveal significant difficulties, we should not lose sight of the fact that the failures and stress caused by these measures underlie hasty and unplanned implementation.

Why Do We Perceive That Digital Activities Have Not Worked During Confinement?

Trying to replace the system of education or face-to-face work simply by transferring it to systems connected to the Internet, without first adapting these processes to the paradigms of the digital universe, is the same as installing a solar panel on the roof of a conventional vehicle during a period of gas shortage and pretending that it works normally.

The digital universe has developed in parallel to the physical world for more than three decades. It has not only meant the consolidation of a new communication tool, but a whole new logic with social, academic, political and cultural implications, which in turn trigger transformations in many aspects of human life such as education or work.

An example that allows us to understand the differences between a conventional face-to-face environment and the digital universe is the case of Wikipedia. Although, in a strict sense, it is an encyclopedia composed of specialized articles that compiles a large part of human knowledge, the way how this project is developed, financed, grown, distributed and works is completely different from a traditional encyclopedia.

While an encyclopedia like Salvat or Britannica is produced by a closed and exclusive group of academic scholars who write these texts, Wikipedia is written by thousands of people around the world, who probably do not know each other, are not paid in compensation, are not being coordinated by anyone, do not have the same level of training and perhaps their worldviews are opposite. However, they constitute altogether a new type of intelligence, called collective intelligence, which is self-regulating and results in a reservoir of articles a thousandfold larger than those in a traditional encyclopedia, which is much more dynamic, economic, participatory, inclusive, diverse, up-to-date, and in constant growth [1].

Although Wikipedia has created a new form of structure, the Encyclopedia Britannica [2] still exists, maintains its integrity and the principles it was founded on, and has managed to consolidate its reputation, which is why many people prefer this type of encyclopedia, which may be less prone to certain conceptual errors, when written in a controlled environment. At the same time, many detractors of this model claim that there is a higher level of risk in academic bias when it is built by such closed group of people. Regardless of which may be better [3], it is evident that there are two completely different models of writing, consolidation, financing and distribution: the traditional one, inherited from a culture of presentiality, and one derived from the digital universe.

Similar to encyclopedias, other components of human life have witnessed a parallel development in the virtual environment, which has taken a different direction and given rise to a new logic. This occurs with education, where a modality called tele-education has consolidated new forms of didactics and pedagogy.

We consulted Fernando Zapata Duque, a Colombian expert in Education and New Technologies, and interviewed him about the current situation of confinement and the solutions that have been implemented from the educational standpoint:

“We are witnessing an aggressive, forced, uninformed and untrained implementation of distance education, which ignores the dimensions of Virtual Education or Tele-education, triggering a massive rejection of this model by the entire educational community as a consequence, and consequently, a very unpopular assessment of it”. Fernando Zapata Duque [4]

According to tele-education standards, the design of an educational content (either didactic material or a virtual course) demands an extensive preparation, an instructional design, the elaboration of specific and diversified pieces such as videos, animations, infographics, documents, among many other things that are articulated through a complex e-learning platform [5]. This allows the student to develop a multidimensional learning experience, which in turn requires specific skills, attitudes, abilities and preparations of both teachers and students.

For expert Rodrigo Sánchez Villa, who recently published an article called The Failure of Online Education: Everyone Does, No One Learns:

“Virtual Education works well only when it meets an indispensable, inexcusable requirement: the student must be high-profile, that is, have a genuine interest in acquiring knowledge and the ability to be self-educated. There are some distance programs, at the graduate level, that meet this high standard, but they require students who can read and understand well what they read and write, and in addition, are able to demonstrate their knowledge when asked about them”. Rodrigo Sanchez Villa [6]

Virtual education has demonstrated its benefits especially in higher education and, particularly, at the post-graduate level, where the profile of the learners manages to fit the dimensions required by virtual learning. On the other hand, in the field of basic education, both primary and secondary, as well as in preschool, virtual education works mainly as a complementary or support tool, which eventually reinforces traditional processes, since attendance is very relevant in these stages:

“The nature of the formative processes required in early ages demands presentiality in the formation processes of children, due to the importance of direct physical interaction with children and teachers, as well as physical activity and play”. Fernando Zapata Duque [7]

The Teleworking Case

Likewise, as happened with distance or remote education, work has also forced us to implement technological solutions to work at distance or remotely from home, solutions that do not necessarily respond to schemes of teleworking and networking.

Some organizations that have been preparing for the competences that teleworking demands for a long time, have managed to overcome confinement with great success, while others have simply connected their employees remotely, but maintaining the logic of presence. Thus, they continue to unsuccessfully seek to fit physical mental schemes in a virtual environment, applying mechanisms as absurd as time control (even of check-in and check-out) or permanent monitoring of the work. This causes high levels of stress in all human capital, since employees have to cope with both adaptation and inflexibility, which of course impairs performance.

Similar to Virtual Education, Virtual Work demands certain specific competencies, attitudes and skills from both managers and employees of an organization. In these environments, each individual must achieve high levels of autonomy and responsibility, while the monitoring of activities must be done from the processes, objectives, indicators and results, and not from the hours that the person remains sitting in a chair. This disposition facilitates the adequate articulation between all the human capital, as long as the technological tools that allow the flow of all the activities are available.

A successful experience that I can refer to and that I know first-hand is the one of the Communications Regulation Commission in Colombia -CRC-, a state entity, which was probably the first to send all the human capital to their homes, without stopping any of their mission processes, even before the Office of the Mayor of Bogotá (the entity’s headquarters city) started to take measures to mitigate the spread of the pandemic. The CRC did not try to hastily establish a model of teleworking (which is a way of working) but implemented one of temporary virtual work, becoming an example and possible model to follow in Colombia and the region. But the CRC model was not a fortunate improvisation, but the result of a long process of many years that sought the qualification in digital skills of all human capital of the entity. The strategy was based on well-structured and totally digitalized institutional processes, a solid organizational culture, the implementation of multiple technological tools (not only video conference software) and processes measured by results indicators.

The Strategy Is LEARNING To Differentiate The Remote From The Virtual

Not everything remote is necessarily virtual, nor is everything virtual necessarily remote. Learning to differentiate these two concepts is key in a situation like the one humanity is going through.

This year, due to unforeseen reasons that required immediate attention beyond our control, we were forced to confine ourselves to our homes. As a strategy to be able to continue with our lives and not feel that we are wasting our time, it became necessary to carry out many activities, that we did in person, in a REMOTE way. This is particularly evident in education and work, as we have mentioned in this article.

We connect daily through teleconference applications in order to try to maintain a certain normality, which is a legitimate strategy, possibly necessary and difficult to avoid, but impossible to confuse with the models that have been developed from the digital fields of study, be it tele-education or tele-working; These systems have been based on a totally different logic to the presence, respond to very particular processes, require prior training of human talent, demand very particular attitudes, skills and abilities and above all, are developed in parallel with the presence without necessarily being a substitute or replacement of it.

Reality has forced us to work remotely or to study at a distance, but whether we use sophisticated Anglicisms such as home office or home school, we should not lose sight of the fact that these are activities different from tele-education and teleworking.  It is necessary to make this differentiation, otherwise we run the risk of unjustly demonizing models that have proven to be successful and that are the basis of such important pillars as the Knowledge Society and the Information Society or the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Photo: Eelement5digital at

[1] Article on the history of Wikipedia

[2] Official Website of the Encyclopedia Britannica

[3] Article: Encyclopedia Britannica VS Wikipedia: Which One Is More Reliable?

[4] Fernando Zapata Duque has a Master’s degree in Telecommunications from Ohio University and a PhD in Education from Antioquia University. He is currently a researcher in Colciencias group: Didactics and New Technologies Group, Antioquia University.

[5] Article: What is E-learning? From the ABC Learning portal

[6] Article; The Failure of Online Education

[7] Fernando Zapata Duque has a Master’s degree in Telecommunications from Ohio University and a PhD in Education from Antioquia University. He is currently a researcher in Colciencias group: Didactics and New Technologies Group, Antioquia University.

[8] Official website of the Communications Regulation Commission

Disclaimer: The published articles correspond to contextual reviews or analyses on digital transformation in the information society, duly supported by reliable and verified academic and/or journalistic sources.  The publications are NOT opinion articles and therefore the information they contain does not necessarily represent Andinalink’s position, nor that of their authors or the entities with which they are formally linked, regarding the topics, persons, entities or organizations mentioned in the text.