Distance Learning / Distance Education

Steve Wheeler / @timbuckteethSteve Wheeler (aka Twitter timbuckteeth) has been writing a series of articles on how distance education has “developed and the influences it has had on our current education provision”.

I am not going to repeat what he says, but I would strongly recommend you read the articles, and the comments, and join in the discussion on his blog – http://steve-wheeler.blogspot.com/

Below are a few thoughts I’ve had, and submitted to Steve as comments too;

The space between us all” : Pt. 1

“Distance is almost always conceived of as being geographical in nature. In class I often ask my students ‘what is the distance between you and I?’ Their first answer is always an approximate measurement of feet, yards, or (if they live in continental Europe) in metres. I then ask them to reconsider their response. I ask them what other distances there are between us. After a little consternation and head scratching, the light comes on and they begin to respond in terms of other ‘distances’.”

I’m sure a lot of us already understand this concept, but then it’s been our business to know the differences between the different types of distances (geographical, religious, emotional, etc). It is those who think only in terms of distance measurement that we need to get through to. The techniques in distant learning offer very different, but still positive enhancements to learning experiences when ‘merged’ (I hate that word) with face-to-face contact time.

Short hand, long distance” : Pt. 2

“Even today, in the advent of digital technology, ubiquitous communications and web based learning, the vast majority of distance education is still reliant on mailed out, paper based material and the humble correspondence course.”

Very true, but is this out of necessity or because it is what is (wrongly) expected by the students? Distant education courses do not equal eLearning courses, although that is not to say they can never be the same. Distant education does not imply any kind of deliverable expectation, only an expectation on the type of learner and learning. eLearning, on the other hand, does imply a specific tool set (computer based or online) through a specific medium of delivery.

First degree burns” : Pt. 3

“Moulton’s [1849-1924] …  innovative ideas could go no further at Cambridge – they crashed and burned. It’s probable that Moulton’s colleagues were concerned about issues such as quality assurance and the means through which assessment of learning would be achieved and authenticated.”

In some respects we are still encountering the same issues today. With more online tools coming to the market each week (some even free), people like me (Learning Technologist) are forever badgering the academics to look at this or that and trying to show them how it can improve student engagement, or reduce time in assessing and providing feedback. Not everyone is in favour of using technology in education, and not everyone is comfortable with it either. I hope we’re not as backward as they were in the late 1800’s but we must recognise that the educator has to be ready to sue the technology, and so does the student. While Moulton was trying to use a model of distant education based on the postal system, we are trying to base ours via the always-on Internet and tech-hungry student population. As Steve says, Moulton “realised his dream and in 1892 was able to establish the first degree programme delivered via correspondence”. Well done.

Making a difference” : Pt. 4

“We must remember though that good pedagogy does not just happen because technology is being used. Good pedagogy takes place when teachers use technology appropriately and creatively. That is what can make the difference.”

This comes back to what I have always said; don’t use technology because you can, use it because it is appropriate to what you want to do. This is what I call my “considered approach” to designing learning materials, assessments, collaboration, work, etc.

Come the revolution…” : Pt. 6

“… in order for students to learn effectively from new technology, it will first be necessary for their teachers to accept a new model of learning. This new model is premised upon educators rejecting the role of the model where the teacher is the ‘knowledge provider’ and instead, adopting of the role of the facilitator.”

In many cases this is the only stumbling block to using new techniques and new technology in an otherwise ‘known’ environment. For every innovator who welcomes new tools and tries their hand at something new, even if it may not work, there are the detractors who will stubbornly stick their heads in the sand in the hope that it will all blow over and they can go back to their acetate overheads.

“Computers brought the world to the classroom. Now smart mobile versions are taking the classroom out into the world.”

We are living in exciting times, we are constantly at the pinnacle of human endeavour, as Stephen Fry puts it. Advances in technology, and how we see and use it, will always require someone to try it out and push the boundaries. I am humbled by the company I keep that I am among some of the greatest innovators.

“The sage on the stage is rapidly becoming the guide on the side.”

Ringing the changes” : Pt. 7

“The social presence of the telephone (the perception that you are connected to the other person) is very high, and many prefer it to so-called richer media such as videoconferencing. We often forget that telecommunication methods are the backbone upon which the Internet and other global communication methods have been based.”

What I am finding is that, as we have all grown up with the telephone, we are comfortable with this media to ‘converse’. Video conferencing is relatively new and, therefore, an unknown medium for communication. Most people shy away from cameras and video cameras, and that is when they are at home or on holiday. The same is true for when they are at work; they get very self conscience when they know the camera is pointed at them.

If the invention of the telephone lead us to the Internet and video conferencing, where could the Internet possibly be leading us?

Man of vision” : Pt.8

“The computer and television together provide the basis upon which visual communication and global information access is achieved.”

The work of a few pioneering individuals has shaped the world we live in. They did it for the adventure and not for the acclaim or cash – that was when adventurous people like Nelson or Edmundson were hero-material, not pop-stars or wannabe famous talentless wasters like Beckham or Hilton!

But what of today’s innovators? Are they doing it for the right reasons? All technical development is being done by ’employees’ of a few big companies (Apple, Sony, LG, etc) so can we say they’re doing it for the fame and cash (they’re certainly not doing it in their shed like the pioneers of the 19th and early 20th century innovators were).

University of the second chance” : Pt. 10

“The OU’s current foray into electronic forms of learning such as web based learning and computer mediated communications is an extension of its tried and tested model of distance-blended learning.”

My only query about the OU is are they still the leaders in the field of distance education (as they once were) or are they playing catch-up? I know of many instances where online submission of assignments is standard (whether the programme is fully online or not) but from conversations from some local OU tutors and OU students it seems that the OU is only just starting this practice.

Spinning the Web” : Pt. 11

“[Tim] Berners-Lee has campaigned tirelessly to keep the World Wide Web open and free, and this is possibly one reason why it remains largely an un-policed, imaginatively fertile and unpredictable aspect of distance education.”

This is also why it has become so popular and such a source of amusement and contention; anyone can have their 15 minutes of fame via the Internet (remember the Star Wars Kid, and the inevitable remixes?). The availability of hardware to access the Internet has become cheaper as we strive to improve (and shrink) technology, which has led to more ad more people owning Internet-ready devices, and for companies to blend different hardware (the camera-phone?).

Thank you for this series Steve, it’s been great reading the history behind where we are today, and to gain insight on where we may be heading.

One another PLE-related note, please see Steve’s presentation called “It’s Personal: Learning Spaces, Learning Webs” below; he is certainly writing a lot about PLEs at the moment (when does he get the time to work?).

View more presentations from Steve Wheeler.