Monday, 1 September 2008

Distance education in the wild

I am very glad to have just submitted this paper (draft here http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dfqggshp_27g4rbxscb) on the experiences of distance education staff in environments where distance is not considered to be a strategic priority.

This can be a little tough to see from where I am sitting now (that is, my PT job as an online ed designer at the centre of a university) makes it look like it wouldn't be that hard, especially beacause the technology is in place and we use it for on-campus students as well. But my experience - and from talking and surveying others - it is really challenging. This is because it takes a whole lot of different types of (not always visible) work to make sure students you never see have what they need and know what they need to do. People who teach or support students that they can see on campus are often surprised when they see what this actually takes. What it means in an institution where distance is marginal is that the invisibility of your work - since no one sees your students they also don't see the struggles of staff (who are also trying to hide their struggles from students, who they want to give a good experience too) can treat distance staff as quite wasteful. Nearly all distance education staff we spoke to reported their biggest challenge to be a sense of cultural and strategic isolation from the rest of their Faculties and the university.

And yet, as the fabulous Ruth Laxton keeps reminding me, nearly all universities now offer distance education, so it is something all universities now need to address.

Very important, I think, is giving a voice to the staff who feel they are working very, very hard to only face regular criticism or misunderstanding. This is why I called the paper "Distance Running" as the experience is a bit of an endurance exercise. I must admit to some relief at not be doing it at the moment. But I'd like to acknowledge the many who are. And also co-authors Jenny Pizzica, Ruth Laxton and Mary Jane Mahony, as well as the friendship of Sue Atkinson in the process.

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