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October 2000
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Distance Education: An Oxymoron?

By Carol Twigg
Center for Academic Transformation

Originally published in The Learning MarketSpace, July 1 2000.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published a review of a new book, The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid last week. The headline reads, "Authors Argue that ‘Distance Education’ Is an Oxymoron."

According to the reviewer, Brown and Duguid believe that proponents of IT suffer from "tunnel vision" that prevents them from seeing that learning is a social experience for which distance-education technology is a poor substitute.

The book builds on the authors' 1995 paper, "Universities in a Digital Age" which makes the same argument: "The central point we want to make is that learning does not occur independent of communities. . . . Learning, at all levels, relies ultimately on personal interactions."

The idea that one cannot learn on one’s own is simply ridiculous. Has neither Brown nor Duguid ever learned anything from that low-tech item called a book? I would guess that the majority of learning that goes on in life occurs independently. Even in traditional group-based classroom environments, the majority of a student's learning time is spent independently, outside of class: the standard expectation is two hours of study outside of class for every one spent in class. As Tony Bates of Canada's Open Learning Agency says, "There is an even greater myth that students in conventional institutions are engaged for the greater part of their time in meaningful, face-to-face interaction. The fact is that for both conventional and distance education students, by far the largest part of their studying is done alone, interacting with textbooks or other learning materials."

Group-based learning is one way of learning--very effective in many circumstances and with many students in many specific situations--but it is not the only way. Many subjects can be learned independently and do not require collaboration.

Applying their community-is-essential argument to lifelong learning, Brown and Duguid assert, "As jobs transform themselves and develop in unprecedented directions, people need to reimmerse themselves in specialized communities to pick up specialized knowledge." The idea is that adult students need to return to campus in order to learn.

Contrast this view with a significant example of what is going on in the IT industry, surely a field that is growing in unprecedented directions, requiring specialized knowledge. Clifford Adelman has written an excellent article describing the exploding phenomenon of IT industry certification in the May-June issue of Change entitled "A Parallel Universe". To give you a sense of the size of this fascinating development, in 1999 third-party examiners administered an estimated 3 million assessments at 5,000 sites in 140 countries. And, as of January 2000, 1.7 million certifications have been awarded.

Adelman notes that in the IT field course work may be recommended but usually is not required because the industry knows how much can be learned by experience and self-study. A 1997 Microsoft survey of its certificate holders found that 98 percent indicated self-study as a preparation method, with 91 percent using (this is shocking!) books. A 1998 Gartner Group study found that 43 percent of 6,000 certificate candidates indicated self-study as their primary learning route.

This data appears to contradict Brown and Duguid’s concerns about learning at a distance from the traditional campus. In their view, the problem is that "students can gain credentials without ever gaining access to knowing communities . . . people can and do end up with the label but without the experience it’s meant to signify." A suggested re-wording might be: "People can and do end up with the learning but without the experience the label is meant to signify." There is no doubt that a credential suggests the residential campus experience to most. Shouldn’t we be more interested in having the label signify the learning?

As part of their critique of distance education, Brown and Duguid make the following statement: "Administrator’s eyes gleam with the thought that distance education will allow them to reach more people across greater distances more cheaply than ever before. The attractiveness of low-cost, technologically mediated teaching is pushing some in the direction of maximum distance, minimum cost, and a virtual university. We think this is the wrong goal to pursue." Please let us know if you have ever heard an educator (not a politician) advocate distance education because it’s cheap.

Continuing their assertion that distance education is an oxymoron, Brown and Duguid implore, "Universities should explore resources for bringing people together, not, as some interpretations of ‘distance education’ suggest, for reinforcing their isolation." Again, please let us know if you have ever heard anyone involved in distance education advocate reinforcing the isolation of students. Indeed, most distance educators are obsessed with overcoming the potential of student isolation and view interaction as a primary goal.

To cite one of countless examples, the University of Illinois offers an online Master of Education degree in Curriculum, Technology, and Education Reform (CTER). In an article, "CTER OnLine: Providing Highly Interactive and Effective Online Learning Environments", Sandra R. Levin and Gregory L. Waddoups discuss the ways in which they create highly interactive learning environments between and among students. In order to maximize communication in an online environment, they recommend a variety of strategies including online conferencing or conference call opportunities for student groups to communicate among themselves; simple group assignments at the beginning of the course that build upon subsequent assignments and become more challenging toward the end of the course; heavy instructor involvement in-group activities early in the semester with less involvement as time goes on; and so on.

Like many seasoned distance educators. Levin and Waddoups know that "interaction" or group communication is not a simple topic. In discussing three methods they have used to form groups (student-selected, topic-selected, and instructor-selected groups), they note that each method offers both positive and negative results. Student-selected groups allow students who know one another or work in close proximity to work together on group activities. However, students who are given the chance to self-select group members tend to pick friends or individuals they know which actually narrows their scope of learning, minimizing opportunities to share ideas with other kinds of students. Some instructors allow students to choose a topic of interest and form groups based on that topic. Depending on the course content, topic-selected groups can produce a mix of interests among the group members or narrow their scope of learning as in the self-selected group. Instructors can also assign members to groups to ensure that each group has a particular mix of interests. While this grouping method can provide a wide range of expertise among its members, it can also lead to tension or personality conflicts. Levin and Waddoups have found that using different methods for creating groups throughout the online course provides a good opportunity for students to work with different students to minimize negative group dynamics.

This example from Illinois is not particularly unique in the world of online education, but it shows in exquisite detail the deep concern for not just interaction in the abstract but for the different forms of social interaction that can contribute to a high-quality learning experience. Many in higher education, like Brown and Duguid, tend to confuse face-to-face contact with interaction. Interaction can occur while not face-to-face, and interaction can fail to occur when face-to-face. There is no necessary relationship.

It looks to us like distance learning is here to stay. Rather than trotting out all the clichés about interaction--and suggesting that one is either for or against it--shouldn’t we be asking more interesting questions like how much interaction is needed to produce what kind of learning? for what kinds of students? in what kinds of courses? or in what parts of courses? These are important questions for students and faculty both on and off campus.

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