‘Distance’ education, the second time around

Timothy Hanlon’s reflections on distance education struck a note with me. His call to educators – and students – to innovate in their teaching and learning is timely and, increasingly, relevant to a growing audience.

This is my second “attempt” at education at a distance. The first, in the early 1990s, was a dismal failure. To be honest, I don’t even remember “stopping” during that attempt; I just remember getting a bit of paper in the mail saying I could re-enrol for another semester, and I never returned it.

And there’s the biggest difference in distance education in the last 20 years – methods of delivery. We *have* come a long, long way.

It’s not just the transmission of information, although that has changed radically. First time around, I waited with baited breath at the mailbox for my course materials.  A printed unit outline, and a chunky reader for each subject, with all the core materials photocopied and pinned together with the biggest staples I’ve seen in my life. Each had a colour-coded cover; blue for business subjects, pink for arts; etc. And a supply of postage-paid envelopes for me to return my essays.

Each assessment piece was a typed effort. If you had a computer – still a rarity in the home back then – hours could be saved by being able to make the types of revisions on the fly that we now take for granted. But for most of us, it was a good old fashioned electric typewriter and some A4 paper. I had the luxury of having access to word processing software at work; one of the lucky ones.

But, by far the biggest difference is in contact with others. In the brief four months since re-commencing study I’ve already had more contact with other students than I did in the year and a half of my previous studies. And far more contact with teaching staff. All of which has been facilitated by technology. I have a question about my unit; flip off an email; last time around, it was make a phone call and hope someone returned it eventually. Timothy reflects on the woeful unit forums provided for each subject at Deakin via its learning management system. Yep, they’re a long way short of even the crudest commercial forum software; but at least we have them!

I support Timothy’s call for educators – and students – to be innovative, to look for and utilise more tools, different tools, to experiment and challenge eachother to communicate differently each time we sit down at the keyboard. But, each person learns differently, and what works for one student may be a dismal failure for others, or their lecturer.

Change can, and should, and from historical example – will – be incoming. But with education being a one-size-fits-all compromise, mindfulness still needs to be given to effectiveness, and the time constraints that pressure everyone into working within the status quo.

Bravo to those with the foresight to throw the 16-page A4 double spaced essay out the window; but for those of us who weren’t born with an iPad in our grip, please give some thought that our discomfort and struggle may not be resistance to change, but a gap in our practical skills. That goes for students and educators alike.

It’s been 20 years since I last attempted distance education, and the change in delivery has been enormous and enormously positive. In another 20 or 30 years, luddites like myself will be gone, and the revolution will be able to commence in earnest, without fear of leaving behind those without the innate technical skills of younger generations.


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