The distance education paradigm: A dalliance with success

What is the value of a university? The building and land have value. The resources and materials for research are often expensive and even priceless. The trade and product of a university is the talent and intellectual capital that is created and traded with each turn over of graduating classes. This pool is not just the faculty and staff but the students who enter and exit while creating an educational cycle in ideas and knowledge. Each graduating class represents a completion of scholarly aptitude. This is a rosy picture that has been eroded by time to be sure. This is a question of why knowledge and the difference between education and training. There is a difference between determining wisdom and training application.  Distance education has become a salve for the guilt of society that won’t serve under represented populations and marketing gimmick used to draw tuition dollars.  Oh, wait, there is more. I’m here to tell you how we can make distance education the best thing ever to come to our society.

First we have to discuss the unequivocal lie of universal education. There is a rising discussion that distance education models are the paths to universal higher education. As currently implemented distance education is the path to universally poor education. On the one hand anybody who wants a university education should be allowed the chance to attempt that education. On the other hand, cliché’ grasped tightly, we should know that standards should not decrease so that everybody achieves or finishes that goal. There is no place for nannyism and social engineering when the people graduating through the system will have expectations put on them to achieve or have some level of skill.  The opportunity should be viewed from the harsh perspective that a university education is a chance to fail.  If that is not a foregone conclusion, if that is too harsh for critics, then higher education is no longer a valid measure of the quality of a person’s knowledge. A university degree should mean something.  The question becomes can you know that a distance education has truly met the obligations of education a society expects?

We keep tripping over the wisdom and application debate that rages inside the university and within society at large. Should a university teach the art of being wise, learning, and scholarly aptitude, or should the university teach application that can be used instantly upon graduation? This question is the central debate that drives most of the education political process. The swaying of education between these poles results in disenfranchised faculty, lost time, and egregious legislation that equates to curriculum by fiat’.

When people refer to the university as being broken often it is the swaying between application and wisdom not matching with their desires and resulting in a discontinuity. There is another factor that falls within this issue. The liberal arts have a tendency through association to fall heavily towards the wisdom side of this debate. The sciences and technologies slice across application. Like a human mind cleaved in two it may function but it can be so much more. I’ve discussed previously the silos in education and this functional attribute can be applied here. To solve this issue simply tear down the barriers and single minded silos of education. A school should be interdisciplinary in teaching and discipline centric in execution. A computer science class should not be a course on Shakespeare. Though thinking about it… Creativity is the glue and silos and false walls and terrible policies sap the strength from scholarship and strip the ideals of academics nude in a fit of glorious streaking. Distance education could fill the gaps and the collaborative enterprises of faculty simply by allowing that collaboration across a broad spectrum of problems and course work. We’re not talking about research but teaching through intellectual expansion of the idea of course work. Distance learning actually supports that better than monastic teaching schedules and death by faculty meeting.

Asynchronous communication is the normal model of delivering course content with a few counter examples. Imagine the panache of a great lecture delivered by recording to a student chewing on a candy bar surrounded by the array of trivial toys and attention robbing gadgets.  Miss a part? Simply rewind the iPod, CD, or other media and replay it again. What a glorious example of soul sapping narcissism and egregious violation of scholarly academic work. Where is the attention to detail? Where is the behavior and respect of education? Where is the attention span? Where are the host of social and human factors required to create exemplar students and future professionals? Critics will say that students in asynchronous distance learning have to be self-motivating, dedicated, and work themselves hard thus creating better skills than available in a classroom. That is simply an over simplification of the issues and just not supported by the facts.

The scholarly life includes interaction. There are many roles for the student to play. The student is a peer to his or her cadre, the student is a leader to underclassmen, the student is a subordinate to upperclassmen, and the student is a learner. An inherent issue with distance learning is that the student is only exposed to their cadre if any other students. That exposure is also rarely social and hardly going to provide a peer-to-peer benefit. Though outliers definitely exist that use Web 2.0 tools few students will use them as early adopters and rarer is the student who will exercise those benefits on their own. A scholarly life is nothing to be ignored. Many studies have suggested that peer-to-peer learning and engagement outside of the classroom and within the institution are necessary for a fully formed student to graduate.

The principle that is missing is presence and engagement. The student in a distance learning environment will rarely have a sense of the meta-learning activities going around them. What I mean by meta-learning is that learning about learning task that occurs when students discuss classes and assignment outside of the course. Where students’ attitudes and knowledge of a course is examined by peers and validation of learning occurs in a peer learning environment. Presence provides this valuable and necessary engagement in the environment. It can be achieved but it more time intensive and can be more powerful than even standard on the ground lecture.

If a professor uses Web 2.0 tools to reach out to their students the effect can be instantaneous. Besides instant messenger clients, tools like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIN all serve purposes. The idea is to engage the student and to have students engage each other. For faculty this means time that would be spent in a one to many relationship suddenly becomes many many many one to one engagements. This is time intensive. Tools like Twitter alleviate that task. All will not be simple though. Engagement for the faculty member also means holding students accountable for their action. Direct engagement will result in strife as responsibility erases anonymity via the abrasiveness of engagement. Students in this model won’t be able to hide and that may simply tick them off. The engagement is to important across the board and students unable to emotionally cope with responsibility of for their actions (or lack of) likely should not matriculate. Harsh? Those in academic circles have the balance of not having to work very often with their graduates. The business world will not have that luxury.

Asymmetry of distance education occurs in the tasking as we’ve found. Student work is often devolved due to the tools used in distance education. Since the tools of self-grading exams and assignments exist for fill in the blank and multiple choice this low level of the Bloom’s Taxonomy seems to creep into distance learning as a primary assessment strategy. The result is a four-year university education that often only reflects the teaching and learning strategies of the bottom of Blooms taxonomy. There is no reason this has to be true, but it often appears to be the case. Even when the education is considered and the learning objectives become robust there is something lost in the interaction between students.  A classroom should not and rarely is a one-way communication medium. There are subtle interplays of emotional content that go on between professors and students. These emotional and secondary communications also occur between the students as they consider the information and integrate the material into their base of knowledge. All of this is missing from the current crop of distance learning programs.

The research vector and the way to solve the issues of distance education are simple. The idea of asymmetric, asynchronous education as the formal model of distance education should be abandoned. Though recording of lectures will allow for review the fact remains that it becomes a travesty of lost social contracts when used to replace on the ground education. There is more to the process of learning than simply receiving information and regurgitating that information. The classroom, the discussion, the Socratic and philosophical interplay between students and faculty is very important. The failure of faculty to lecture in an inclusive way should not be a portal to standardizing that model in distance education. Our research vector or direction should be to enhance that sense of presence in the distance-learning environment.

Similarly the research should follow a path that creates a complete classroom experience for all the students inclusive of the emotional and secondary channels of communication. As I have seen the use of instant messenger and SMS in the classroom can be good as well as disruptive. It takes a faculty member who is strong in their self-image to withstand the criticism of student pundits backchannel communication. At the same time the use of tools in a disciplined manner can be illuminating and provide for students to expand and cement their knowledge. Interesting discussion can arise when the textbook states one set of facts and a quick search of Wikipedia states another set of facts. A simple skim of a Wikipedia article on TCP/IP does not disclose a substantial disagreement over the number of layers in the model and only deeper research discloses that debate. Examples like that of course can be built into course work, but the example can also be part of the discovery process during the lecture facilitated by the use of technology. That facilitation is a key concept.

Technology should facilitate the student and professor interaction. Anytime the technology replaces that interaction we should be suspect. The learning process is a primarily human event. Technology often has a “something shiny” aspect without consideration of the resulting secondary and tertiary effects. Technology coordination offices at universities often become the shills of vendors pushing technology rather than considering the use case of the faculty. When the discussion starts out “here is this cool technology you should use” rather than the more valid technologist position of “how can we help you reach your students” the technology has risen to far to fast.

As a facilitator, technology can assist interaction between faculty and students. Technology for good and bad has entered the classroom often without consideration for what the results mean. Many students have been bored to death by the less than effective use of PowerPoint. In many distance-learning tools the PowerPoint may be the only interactive element of the lecture other than the instructor voice. The instructor who does not use PowerPoint is left with a dark screen and NO interaction. In this case a senior master instructor who uses a white board, or no technology may be pushed aside by the technology. That is simply a travesty. Distance learning research should attempt to solve the problem of faculty reaching students rather than impeding the flow of lectures and content delivery. Distance learning tools should provide holistic classroom delivery rather than be based on delivery of technology centric instruction in the classroom.

As a technologist I became aware of the substantive gap in classroom capture technology when I gave up PowerPoint as a delivery mechanism. In my class I use a method called exemplar that is I tell a story about how something works and then equate that to the materials and learning objectives. This type of delivery creates a memory root that can be recalled and is also part of the model eliciting activity form of instruction. I realized that PowerPoint was inhibiting this form of instruction, but did not realize the issue was even worse in other disciplines. In theater the Instructor might show facial transition for examining emotional context. In most classroom capture systems that simply won’t be possible. If the argument becomes that kind of course should not be delivered distance learning then universal education is proven to be a lie. Often these issues are equated to antiquated teaching and learning methods as exemplar along with Socratic method have their roots with the Greeks. What does it say about technology and distance=learning if the method of instruction is determined by the technology? Technology cannot drive the education process. Arguments over training and education as models aside neither is served when the technology is inhibiting education.

Advocates of distance-learning have a tendency in their zeal for the product to forget that it is an education. A social contract is created between the university and society on what that student will learn and how those credentials will be received. There are ways to fix these problems in distance learning but most impact the central tenets of asynchronous education, asymmetric assessment and learning mechanisms, and technology centric delivery methods. Simply put distance-learning will always be inferior to on the ground education until the various channels of communication are integrated into a transactional model inclusive of feedback mechanisms and enhances the learning process. Synchronous education even in asynchronous delivery is possible but likely a long ways in the future.  A key concept is to stop treating the higher education system like a factory and the education as a product. Students are scholars in training not customers. Distance learning is flawed shell that enables a few to rise above the morass and passes many who have only achieved a piece of paper.  Distance learning is the future. The key is solving the issues rather than hiding them behind glistening shiny technology because it won’t be long before somebody peaks behind the curtain and finds a flawed and broken model.

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