New Views on Distance Education
As an "unabashed technophile" and child of the Sixties who grew up with McLuhan’s (1964) idea that the "medium is the message," my perspective on Distance Education upon entering this class carried a bias towards the media and technical aspects of DE. In my simplistic analysis, I interpreted distance from a strictly spatial/geographic viewpoint that considered the means of communication and its technological underpinnings more than the theoretical constructs and end results.
While McLuhan’s ideas about media and the global village clearly have relevance to the topic of distance education, it has become equally clear during the course of this semester that issues relating to distance education precede McLuhan as well as our modern concept of media. At the same time it is apparent that theoretical analysis and research must extend beyond delivery systems, media, and programs in order to transcend the limitations of today’s popular media and offer a structural basis for longer term solutions. As Wedemeyer (1981) explained, it is important to see technology as a means and not and end. By moving beyond this simplistic view, practitioners can achieve more satisfactory and consistent results that will better serve learners as well as institutional providers in the decades ahead.
Because of my initial bias towards thinking literally about the 'Distance' in distance education, I focused a lot of my attention in this class on its global aspects. Long before the global village, humans have "sought to explore the margins, and extend the boundaries of their territories" (Evans & Nation 2003). That DE is another link in this centuries-old quest is both exciting and troubling as this newest form of expanding our reach carries great responsibility that will no doubt be abused, as it has been through centuries of exploration and imperialism (both political and cultural).
The Adaptive, Meaningful, Organic, Environmental-Based Architecture (AMOEBA) model (Gunawardena, et al. 2003) for online course design is appealing in that the instructor becomes a co-learner with the students who participate more fully in the instructional process. While it is aimed specifically at matters of cultural diversity in the global aspects of DE, the AMOEBA model fits nicely with theories about transactional distance (Moore), increased learner responsibility (Wedemeyer, 1971), mutual interdependence (Eliasmith), empathy between student and teacher (Holmberg, 2003), and the causal loop of system dynamics theory (Saba & Schearer, 1994). Promoting sensitivity, flexibility and adaptability in a global educational setting with a culturally varied student population has the potential to have far-reaching positive consequences for the whole of society if used wisely. [What are the chances?] But even in a more regional setting, this type of responsiveness to the environment should be a worthwhile alternative to a DE approach that has too often taken the form of courses that are “little more than online handbooks” rather than "conversational presentations of instructional content." (Holmberg, 2003)
Cultural diversity aside, the learner-centered approach is another appealing aspect of DE that is also becoming more popular in traditional education as education in general becomes something of a commercial commodity. This focus will undoubtedly have both positive and negative consequences as it becomes more pervasive. On the positive side, learning opportunities have the potential to be more meaningful, relevant, and memorable for the student. On the negative side, too much student choice and preference may lead to dismissal of less "fun" aspects of subjects that must be mastered more-or-less in their entirety. In some fields, the worst result of this might be ignorance of important yet dull portions of a body of knowledge. More critically exacting fields (e.g. medicine, aerospace) allow an exaggeration of this point to demonstrate that the learner may not be the best judge of what is best to know. And even in less critical areas, too much learner control and autonomy may promote an unbalanced educational experience or general intellectual laziness. While Moore notes that increasing structure can mitigate situations where too much autonomy may be detrimental, it is not always clear how considerations such as cost and commercial appeal might impact this model as DE offerings become part of a more competitive global marketplace.
One of my initial concerns about DE remains a concern – that DE is viewed by many as substandard or inferior in some way to traditional education. Some of this can be addressed as the base of research grows to affirm theoretical foundations and more firmly establish that there is no significant difference in learning outcomes (Saba 2003). I am hoping that an increase in the body of research and further adoption of DE programs by respected mainstream institutions along with expanded use and success with DE in corporate environments will enhance the perception of DE in the near future. While there will always be institutions and offerings of questionable repute, this has always been true of traditional learning venues as well. Regard for constructs such as the system theory and AMOEBA model when presenting and developing courses will serve to move distance education beyond the common perception of a standardized, content-centered delivery medium.
Overall, the readings, lectures, and demonstrations in this course provided a more holistic view of distance education than I previously had considered. As a result I broadened my focus from the technology and media to gain a 'bigger picture' perspective of the field that will better serve my future endeavors in this area.
Gunawardena, C. N., P. L. Wilson, et al. (2003). Culture and Online Education. Handbook of Distance Education. M. G. Moore and W. G. Anderson. Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.: 753-775.
Holmberg, B. (2003). The Theory of Distance Education Based on Empath. Handbook of Distance Education. M. G. Moore and W. G. Anderson. Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.: 79-86.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA, The MIT Press.
Saba, F. (2003). Distance Education, Theory, Methodology, and Epistemology: A Pragmatic Paradigm. Handbook of Distance Education. M. G. Moore and W. G. Anderson. Mahwah, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers: 3-20.
Saba, F. and R. L. Shearer (1994). "Verifying Key Concepts in a Dynamic Model of Distance Education." American Journal of Distance Education
Wedemeyer, C. A. (1971). Independent Study. Encyclopedia of Education IV. R. Deighton. New York, McMillan: 548-557.
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© 2003, 2004 Susan Connell, Educational Technology Student at San Diego State University