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....

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.

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Comments

Phillip D. Long said…
Based on this first instalment, I'm very much looking forward to the rest of this series. You're quite right that conflation of technology providing access to distributed students has masked the 'other' distances that exist between/among students and instructional staff.

Technologies provide both a form of intermediation, as well as the potential for augmentation, ultimately leading to rare cases of transformation in learning. I doubt the questions in or even the discipline of remote sensing would exist without contemporary technologies, for example. But focusing on the dynamics of the learning interaction among all the component parts/actors, is essential to building any understanding of what goes on it them.

One of the things, among many I suppose, that we really understand poorly is the relationships between attributes/channels/dimensions that mediate meaningful interaction in face-to-face learning encounters. We attribute a special status to the 'richness' of f2f settings, but we know little about what are the important elements, to what kinds of learning or knowledge domains.

Looking forward to your addressing these and other issues.
John McLear said…
As a student of distance learning and now someone who works in distance learning I know the benefits. Distance learning doesn't have to be "nation" based as most of my learning was done "in the US" even though I'm in the UK, companies such as cisco and Microsoft do this fine with localized testing and have done for many a year..
Anonymous said…
Like Phillip, I'm too looking forward to this series Steve.

The issue of 'intellectual distance' between a tutor and student set me thinking though. As a teacher of A Level Physics students (a while ago now), I sometimes felt the differential was in the opposite direction to that which rcomments assume. There were a notable few wonderful students I had the privilege to teach who were unquestionably intellectually superior to me, as their achievements at Oxbridge ultimately showed. Fortunately I had experience on my side . . . and of course the tutor/student power differential in my favour. So maybe there's a case for thinking of this separation as displacement (a vector quantity, having directionality in addition to magnitude) rather than distance, a solely scalar quantity. Maybe the 'age gap' which operates in one particular direction under certain circumstances, flips direction when the situation changes?

The linguistic gap between those with English as their first language on our course and those with Flemish, flips direction for certain activities (when our conference venue was in Holland for example). The gap size is also different when viewed from each direction - the Flemish/English gap for our Belgian friends is relatively small. The English/Flemish gap for me however is huge in comparison.

Hmmm? - I have to think about this some more. There must be a vector diagram in here somewhere! Can't wait for the next post.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your thoughful comments Phil. I concur with you that we still need more understanding of human f2f interactional components, before we can fully understand many of the affordances and effects of technology mediation on relationships.
Steve Wheeler said…
Nice thoughts John. National boundaries are of course essentially political in nature, and distance education can transcend these somewhat contrived distinctions between races, people and in some cases, languages as well.

I like your examples, Ian, of exceptions to the transactional distances that have been identified. You have something there in your notion of vector rather than scalar dimensions to the 'distances' I'm identifying.

Thank you both for your thoughful feedback. I only hope I can live up to your expectations with the rest of this series! ;-)
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Anonymous said…
"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'."

I'm sure a lot of us already understand this concept, but then it's been our business to know the differences between the different types of distances (geographical, religious, emotional, etc). It is those who think only in terms of distance measurement that we need to get through to. The techniques in distant learning offer very different, but still positive enhancements to learning experiences when 'merged' (I hate that word) with face-to-face contact time.
eLearning00 said…
Once a publisher told me that in his opinion the traditional Italian University system could be considered a massive experiment of "distance education". He meant that in our current mass universities students actually experience a form of self-regulated study as the only kind of relatioship with HE institutions and faculty. Above all learners study on their own on textbooks, following directions provided in the individual course plans and, if needed, agreeing with teachers a study program towards the final exams. The publisher's remark reveals two assumptions related to 'distance' in higher education:

1) conventional mass universities assign to 'distance' only a space/time meaning and therefore don't consider it as a problem belonging to their own setting. In reality in most cases the ‘teaching’ distance teacher/student (as it is suggested in the example) has being dramatically increased so far, because an elitarian model of university of the XIX° century was reproduced in a new mass education context. Personally I have always thought that distance education and its evolution as neworked learning, could be a (very complex) answer to the needs of mass universities’ students;

2) 'distance education' keeps on being negatively perceived as a 'B plan', as an expedient to be used in a case of necessity, only when the learner has no conventional alternatives to be joined. The old debates among theorists of distance education – is it deal with ‘instruction’ rather than ‘education’? – mirrors this polpular and persistent concern. Really theroretical and pedagogical approaches in ‘distance education’ problematized ‘distance’ and aimed to overcome the different kinds of ‘distance’ in educational and settings, using the ICT developments as enablers.

I can only refer to my local context, but I am afraid that among decision makers many are still convinced that “we have no distance”, even if they struggle with inefficiency and unsustainability of the current model.
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jsalinasi said…
The issue of transactional distance is very interesting for research on distance education and the use of emerging tools. However, I think it has not done enough research in this field.

In your post there is a interesting point in the examples of transactional distance (age, sex, psychological distance,..). If we continue, we would be entering in some subjects of the digital divide: age gap, sex gap, accessibility to technology and information, technological skills, ... And this may be a good topic of discussion.

For me, the issue is how we handle some of these dimensions so that it can decrease the geographical and transactional distance ... and the digital divide in relation to exercise the universal right to higher and better education.

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