Wherefore distance education in the digital age?

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Right now I’m happy to be part of a very well attended conference on digital literacies, organised by the indefatigable Alex Grech. There are a lot of high-flying educators and instructional technologists telling us about the future. Well, the present, which sounds a lot like the future defined by science fiction writers. We live in a time when there is no definition of the future that can amaze us. We are already there.

It is taken for granted, this late in the day, many years after Michael Moore and the rest of the pioneers dared to go distant with their courses, eventually moving online as the natural progression of all things digital, that this is the way to go. Speakers are talking about digital strategies, MOOCS, online course development, VLEs and all those other buzz words so staple to the world of technologically aided education. All massively interesting. All reiterating the fact that the classroom is potentially over-rated as the arena in which teaching and learning happen. Many years ago I had been hotly contended by educators when I presented my paper called “Tolling Bell for Institutions” at a conference (expanded and published later as “Hypertextual Processing and Institutional Change”) in which I discussed the change happening to students because of immersion in technologies that are growing much faster than we can map them. And definitely much faster than the traditionally slow moving education sector can keep up with and counter… or at least work with, understanding, adopting, adapting and moving in directions that are more in tune with the spiral of incidental acquisition that omnipresent, and particularly mobile, technologies offer.

I don’t think it’s even a question whether we should use online channels to teach our courses. Of course we should. There are tricks to e-learning, of course, and anybody who tries to teach online in the same way that he or she teaches in class will come a cropper. It’s a different methodology altogether, specialist and needing the understanding of all the tools available in virtual learning environments. The method allows students geographical and time flexibility. It permits them access to minds that would otherwise have been denied them. It gives the possibility of synchronous and asynchronous resources that permit interaction… often more liberated in context than the daunting one permitted by actual presence… and that can be accessed at all times.

I did rock the boat a little during the first session of the conference yesterday, and was probably considered a retrograde by many in the hall when I suggested we can’t abandon the face-to-face approach in a country that is a sea-locked minuscule enclave in which people bump into each other whether they want to or not. That research needs to be done within this unique context to understand which is the better way to actually teach our students. Or at least to understand to what degree each is effective with regards to teaching outcome results. I was not being UNtechnological when I said that. Anybody who knows me knows where my mind lies in this domain (firmly IN the technological… for those who don’t know me). I was actually reacting to the fact that it seems to be the fashion to go the digital technological way, ignoring the fact that a more rudimentary approach to education might actually be a useful alternative within the special context of students able to congregate in person after a short bus ride.

Yes, face-to-face does not take into consideration all the ramifications of the international context. Yes, that eliminates their exposure to different takes instigated by cultures present through online facilitation. Yes, that restricts the input to what is available locally. So if that were to be what is to be considered, then there is nothing that beats online courses. But I do sometimes think back to the time an uncle of mine… a bit of a self-professed handyman… who had bought an extremely elaborate tool onlne and because he had it he wanted to use it all the time. It took him ages to hammer in a nail with that tool, but he had it and of course that was what was best for this, forgetting that a simple, traditional hammer could have done the job better and in half the time.

No, not decrying in any way digital literacies infusing online education. That’s a revolution that has left enormous effect world wide. An enormous movement that has been studied and mapped, evaluated, modified and honed to almost perfection. I just refute that they are the only future.

For one, I often think in terms of motivation. That is at the core of success in anything, really, but definitely in education. Unmotivated students are sluggish and only get to the finishing line limping and crawling. This is very true in traditional, face-to-face teaching and learning. We were told, way back at the beginning, that interacting online would change all that. It would generate the motivation that might have been lacking in the lethargic student. Because young people, particularly, like computers and will, of course, like learning using computers.

Only that didn’t happen. The allure of the technology sort of falls by the wayside when courses are formalised and, at least in spirit if not in form, simulate those same courses given in the classroom. When there is a rigid, summative accreditation imposed (because that seems to be the only way universities can give grades) and a time frame within which a course needs to be followed.

This is were (the so-called disruptive) MOOCS excel. They can be followed informally. They can move to the rhythm of the student’s own life. There is little to no accreditation on offer (just enough to motivate the lazier), and the incredible number of takers gives ample possibility for peer interaction across the board. Wonderful that they were taken on board by so many institutions.

But courses duly delivered on the institutionally adopted VLE leave me quite cold. Yes, the blended sort create an element of excitement because of diversity, though the concept also limits participation. I’m referring to straight, online delivery. Formalised modules. Using the tools available because they’re there. In many cases unimaginatively created by instructional technologists whose onus is technical, not creative. Of course there are exceptions. Of course there are brilliant units that are cutting edge in creativity, that go the extra mile and really engage. But, I might be going on a limb when I say that I believe  that this is not the norm. The norm is often unmotivated, done because it’s expected. Because it’s “the way forward”.

Cynical? Maybe. But if you’re making do without the style that good lecturers bring to face-to-face, then creativity in the style adopted online is indispensable. And, no… I’m not ignoring that there are also dud face-to-face lecturers. They exist in abundance. I’m not going tit-for-tat, here. I’m talking about the reality that in both modes of delivery there are the flops, and the fact that one of those is delivered through digital technology does not save it. I know I’m squeezing the massive reach of digital technologies online to simple form, but for me that is indispensable and can easily be damning! I find clunkiness in navigation daunting. I get quickly impatient with long paths created by rote till the crunch of the pedagogy is reached.

And I’m not the only one going that route. There can be no doubt that immersed users of the internet have become progressively more economical in their attention span. Only bytes do. A news item needs to be two hundred words or less, preferably constricting the inverted pyramid to the gist into the title, not even in the intro paragraph. Hypertextual surfing has become manic. Linearity has, of course, long gone out the window, even in linear hypertext clicking. With surfing often happening on the small screen of a mobile, with websites becoming responsive (or dying) and content losing ground to monitor space, wherefore the VLE interfaces used extensively by so many institutions?

I have always been fascinated by the way the information generation absorbs random snippets of information, often latticed into a web of seemingly unconnected, difficult to retrieve mass of “knowledge” that is quite useless in application. It’s incidental acquisition facilitated by the ease with which information can be accessed and fueled by the natural curiosity of the young. It is predominantly useless because the skills for synthesis are missing, and education tends to ignore the need for such skill giving… the finding of ways to get to the nodes of knowledge and to create a kernel of synopsis.

This ever-growing core of young people is often disenchanted with all forms of formal education, online and off. They thrive on social media. They chat in abbreviative language and live in the internet fast lane. I have missed this really interesting, massively well informed conference touching on the role social media can play in educational practice (for example) – on how what has essentially been social can be rerouted to delivery of informal educational processes (both procedural and declarative). Embracing a form that is motivational per se, retaining the social underpinning and voluntary uptake that makes for that motivation, and take it from there.

Along with, I have no doubt, many others, I see incidental, informal acquisition as one of the ways forward. Educators need to understand the tools available to them (even if they are not essentially made for that) to access this massive group that could easily become part of a lost generation.

I think it’s time for another book.

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