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 ones 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
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 Duguids 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 its 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. Shouldnt 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: "Administrators 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 its 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
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--shouldnt 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.