The space between us all
In this new series I will discuss how distance education has developed and the influences it has had on our current education provision. Comments are most welcome. Here's the first installment:
A few years ago I heard a funny remark at an e-learning conference in Germany. Someone suggested that small area nations such as the United Kingdom have no need for distance education, because they have no ‘distance’. I laughed at the time and replied that if we followed this line of reasoning, there would be no need for any education either. More laughter. Of course the UK has distance education! I have already made the case for a significant British contribution to the development of distance education, both in terms of its conceptualisation, and also in terms of its innovation of technologies such as telephony (Alexander Graham Bell), television (John Logie Baird), correspondence courses (such as Sir Isaac Pitman's shorthand courses), the World Wide Web (Sir Tim-Berners-Lee) and of course the British Open University model (Wheeler, 2005).
Although light-hearted, the conversation at the German conference led me to re-examine the notion of ‘distance’ and in fact ultimately launched me into seven years of study culminating in a research degree in the field. A key question for distance educators to ask then, is – what is distance? Distance is almost always conceived of as being geographical in nature. In class I often ask my students ‘what is the distance between you and I?’ Their first answer is always an approximate measurement of feet, yards, or (if they live in continental Europe) in metres. I then ask them to reconsider their response. I ask them what other distances there are between us. After a little consternation and head scratching, the light comes on and they begin to respond in terms of other 'distances'.
There may be an age gap, or a gender gap. These distances are based on the premise that people of different age groups tend to see things in different ways, and have different values – which leads to a ‘distance’ being perceived between them – what was once called ‘the generation gap’. This may have been the basis for the controversial assumptions made by Marc Prensky's 'Digital Natives and Immigrants' theory. The gender gap may be a little more subtle, but the distance between males and females can be just as tangible. Ask anyone who is married. Then there is the intellectual distance experienced between students and their instructors. This perception often leads to a power differential between the two, and (some would say an appropriate) distancing. Other distances may also come into play including cultural and particularly language distances. These may lead to misunderstandings or misconceptions about the motives or intentions of people, and may create a psychological distance. I go on to tell the students that there are always ‘distances’ between each of us, no matter what the nature of the transaction.
In distance education, the geographical distance does not have as much influence as it once had, as interactive technologies are now quite sophisticated. Beatle George Harrison once wrote ‘We were thinking about the space between us all…and the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion...’ One of the most important distances to overcome is the perceived distance between each of us and those we attempt to communicate with. Michael Moore (no, not that one) once theorised that there is a distance between us and others which is one of a transactional nature. My theory is that depending on how a technology is used, it has the potential to either amplify or reduce such transactional distances (Wheeler, 2007). As educators we need to address many of these issues particularly if we are operating within a distance education context...but it also applies in face to face teaching and learning contexts.
Distance education is of course best conceived of as a method for delivering and supporting learning opportunities to students who can't be present on campus or in a classroom. It is an ideal strategy for the promotion of inclusive education, where those who cannot travel to a university or college for some reason can still participate in a community of learning. In an organised format, one of the first beginnings of distance education was in England in the Victorian era....
Tomorrow: Part 2: Short hand, long distance
References: Wheeler, S. (2005) British Distance Education: A Proud Tradition. In Y. Visser, L. Visser and M. Simonson (Eds.) Trends and Issues in Distance Education: An International Perspective. Greenwich, Connecticut, USA: Information Age Publishers.
Wheeler, S. (2007) The Influence of Communication Technologies and Approaches to Study on Transactional Distance in Blended Learning, [Abstract] ALT-J: Research in Learning Technology, 15 (2), 103-117.