Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Learn Up Close

We learn where we are.

Distance learning as an expression is a misnomer and by those words faulty in concept. Learning takes place immediate to learners, not distant from them. What the expression actually intends and ought to state instead is, learning at a distance from the originating resource.

In reality, “learning at a distance” has existed since the dawn of history when scribes first created writing and sent written knowledge down the street, over land and over sea. We can study the thinking of the pre-Socratics, dead for more than 2500 years and living then thousands of miles away. Contrary to some bit of techno-prejudice, we have not thought all these years of that study in its reach beyond time and space as “distance learning,” merely as learning.

The expression “distance learning” is one more insidiously pervasive example that the institutionalized dispenser of education whether school, teacher or other agency is superior to the individual learner without whom no learning is possible. A more exact term is distance education; that is, educational content provided to remote but connected learners by using some form of technology.

Distance education is the terminology used by such reference sources as the online EBSCO MegaFILE to article texts on the subject – 2,778 of them as of this date. The Library of Congress and all the world’s libraries that follow LC’s thesaurus of subject headings as a standard also employ distance education as the established term. You can Google “distance learning” in Wikipedia and the article you turn up is headed “distance education,” brought to you by automatic referral from the common, but flawed misnomer. For a recent update, see the text Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education (4th ed., 2009).

No doubt, “distance learning” is amok in current popular and professional use. One professional organization, “if your work involves helping people learn wherever they may be,” is United States Distance Learning Association. The Center for Distance Learning, affiliated with the City Colleges of Chicago offers 90 courses in a wide range of disciplines. The Center for Distance Learning Research at Texas A&M University has existed since 1991. Presumably, the term is not widely questioned and unlikely to go away very soon.

Distance education as we know it today is an outgrowth of correspondence courses, the first on record having originated in 1728 as a method of teaching short hand with delivery by mail. With new technologies, especially electronic ones – radio, television, and computers – educators have adapted each to enrolling students and classes at a distance from the teacher. Now whole schools operate online and the Minnesota State College and Universities, the state’s public higher education system outside the University of Minnesota, has announced its aim of delivering 25% of its classes by distance education.

Of course, being in a class online, however valuable, fails equivalence to being in a class face to face. Asynchronous participation replaces simultaneity: students reply to one another through postings, not interactive conversations. Though formats vary, classes brought together online require time shifting and likely a greater commitment to pay attention to all the other participants, not just those who participate in the limits of class time. As participation levels increase, in part due to individualization and the comfort of greater anonymity, students can demand in total far more effort from the teacher. These burdens lead to how courses are structured and what is required.

Students will discover what suits their lives, schedules and psyches. They ought also attend to what satisfies their need and desire to learn. The learning counts most of all, not the distance or the technological abolition of distance.
© 2008, 2009 by Roger Sween.

This article first appeared on the writing platform Helium.com and is here revised.

I welcome substantive comments on the content of this blog. Personal comments may be made to me at my email address, rogdesk@charter.net.