Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Cry in the Wilderness Against Distance Education

I recently looked up a high school classmate and found out that she has worked as a graphic artist for the past couple of decades or so, in the field of distance education.  It left me with a sad feeling, and maybe a tiny bit glad that I hadn't kept in contact.

I have attended many college programs throughout my life. The content delivery methods varied widely:
  • instructor lecture
  • mentor-guided independent study
  • satellite-delivered live lectures
  • instructor reading out of a book
  • on-line self-guided study
  • instructor guided hands-on workshop/lab 
  • hybrid (on-campus lab, on-line testing)
  • field work documented and evaluated for credit
The methods in red are the ones that just didn't work for me. Mentor-guided study worked for calculus and poetry, but I withdrew from the program when it came time to study physics. I did OK with microbiology in an on-line format too, so I can't criticize distance-ed purely as a content delivery method, but I have a blanket condemnation on the educational profession for substituting it when a real education is demanded.  To my mind, the profession has abandoned its commitment to truth and learning when they seek to eliminate personal interaction by substituting technology in its place.

Another one of my classmates went on to earn a doctorate in education. Her master's thesis proposed that being in contact with nature, and being immersed in peaceful natural settings, enhanced learning and promoted retention. My own experience supports that viewpoint; I find natural park-like settings to be highly conducive to study and deep thinking, and college campuses that incorporate areas allowing for physical activities separate from distraction-free, natural study areas, are the most rewarding. Often when working, surrounded by computers, books, and the sterile accouterments of our digital society, I feel compelled to just step away into a stream of sunlight.

Distance education has become part of the on-going ephemeralization of our society, to use both Fuller's and my own working definition.  The good is that some materials can be made available freely. Unfortunately, the costs to students attending traditional institutions are about the same, yet the quality of instruction is often worse than having a teacher reading verbatim out of a dry textbook. That is cheating students out of a quality education, and cheating the rest of our society out of having broadly and deeply educated citizens.

Distance education ephemeralizes by doing less and less for the same amount of money or more. MIT's Courseware has it right in this respect, making the content available for no cost. But the true cost of distance education is the sense of social disconnection it creates between peers and teachers, and the complete elimination of physical contact: aural, visual, and tactical cues are all missing. There is no warmth, and lacking the emotional component there is less reward for learning in and of itself.
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