Monday, 4 November 2013

Overcoming the tyranny of distance

The idea of studying anywhere had particular appeal for a nation so large, but sparsely populated, like Australia. Indeed, Australia and Canada had a particular advantage in eLearning: they each had strong traditions in distance education. The distance and isolation of many communities in made distance education a useful tool for economic and community development. As a result, while initially, distance education in Australia was more coordinated and targeted, with more substantial government oversight than in most other countries.

The School of the Air, based in Alice Springs, was established at the Royal Flying Doctors offices in Alice Springs as early as 1951, highlighting to the public the difficulty of offering even primary school education in remote areas of Australia. The University of New England (UNE) began teaching external students soon afterwards, in order to fulfil its mission to educate regional Australia.  The UK’s Open University inspired later developments so that in the 1970s ‘dual mode’ institutions like Deakin University enrolled students in the same courses face to face and by distance in order to offer the opportunity for higher education to students who might otherwise miss out.

As technologies changed, so did the modes of communication with distance students. Telephone calls and television broadcasts were added to written ‘correspondence’ courses, and teleconferences were conducted to allow collective student interaction. While email was used very quickly indeed, videoconferencing was less effective, for throughout the 1990s it was expensive to run and very difficult to access in any widespread way.

For distance education practitioners, eLearning was merely an extension of what they had always done: trying to find new and better was of communicating with students and fostering interaction between them. The discipline of educational design, which grew rapidly as technological and staff development was demanded within all universities, simultaneously drew upon and ignored existing pedagogic practices in distance education. Distance educators were often frustrated by the wheel reinvention that eLearning designers conducted and the language of innovation that they used to pronounce their discovery of things distance educators had been doing for many years. I must admit, for five years before beginning my history PhD, I was one of those upstart eLearning practitioners. I am grateful for the patience with which my colleagues in distance education nevertheless supported my development.  It was not only me: the long term thinking and design habits of distance educators gave Australian eLearning a critical and methodological edge, particularly in the early years.

Not all eLearning was for the purpose of distance education, however, and terms to describe the use of technologies for campus-based students included ‘blended learning’ or ‘technologically enhanced learning’ and so on. In light of how rapidly campus-based technologies were adopted, within a decade of the universal rollout of learning management systems, some were already declaring the ‘e’ in eLearning redundant. Technology imbued all that we did, learning and otherwise. Campus-based and distance education each required technology, for everything did.

While distance education was not the sole function of eLearning, Peter Goodyear pointed out that it nevertheless carried a utopia that learning could be completed ‘anytime, anywhere’. The democratising discourse of distance education and the World Wide Web both compel the addition, ‘anyone’. Anytime, anywhere, by anyone might be a little utopian, but for many members of society eLearning offered opportunities to participate in collaborative learning that they would not otherwise have. As well as those located in remote regions, the disabled, single parents, full-time workers and others have enjoyed the flexibility that eLearning offered. Of course traditional distance education could have done something similar, but – well, frankly, it didn’t. eLearning made these opportunities more commonplace. Nevertheless, as Goodyear argued, the optimistic ‘can-do’ quality of eLearning and its capacity to democratise education needs some closer analysis.

--- This is a rather rough and totally unedited segment of my first draft of Chapter 9: Knowledge in the Age of Digital Reproduction, from the book I am writing Knowing Australia: a history of the modern university, for UNSW Press. ----


Matthew da Silva said...

Coursera and MOOCs have made the link between elearning and business models that university executives have seemed to need to 'get on board'. In this video, we see UNSW's Fred Hilmer talking about the potential of MOOCs, among other panelists.

Of course, it's a bit ironic to see Hilmer so gung-ho for digital learning since he was at the helm of Fairfax during the years it completely missed all opportunities to cash in on the web. In 2005, the year Hilmer finished as CEO of Fairfax, the company's share price was around $5 and today it's around 50 cents.

M-H said...

I think it's also important that the digital access brings a much richer dimension to any learning, whether it's solo, in small groups or in big classes. People can access information wherever they are, and can add this to their own stores of information to create now ideas - new to them, anyway. I think this is the real democratisation the internet has brought us - the ability to always bring a new angle or new information to whatever we are doing or thinking about (if we chose to). For universities this is both a blessing - possibilities of much richer teaching and learning - and a curse - if all information is available, what does making knowledge mean? As Philip Adams said this morning: Does making knowledge public improve public knowledge?

Anonymous said...

Having recently got back into the e-learning space, albeit in a peripheral role, it's interesting to see how the technology and cultural context is shaping the pedagogy again. Lots to be said here that you're probably planning to say. And universities, despite the large amounts of money they throw at e-learning, expect long term efficiencies. I've sat in seminars where 'experts' liken the change to the university sector as similar to those in journalism and publishing ie: the digital is re-creating the sector into a different animal altogether.