Monday, January 13, 2014

Are On-line Courses a form of Distance Education?

With the current debate over Massive Open On-line Courses (MOOCs), it is good to see that the debate over what to call e-learning goes back at least ten years. Conrad, Shale 2003 and Kanuka & Conrad, all writing in 2003,  lamented the loose use of terminology for distance education. In my view language is a tool which is modified as our need and understanding changes. Terms such as "e-learning" will be coined when needed and discarded when use of computers becomes integrated a routine part of education.

Kanuka and Conrad (2003) appear displeased with the use of terminology for distance education, saying how recent use "dishonors past practices and slights distance education's pedagogical heritage". They characterise distance education as being where where "instructors are in some way removed from students" and there is "mediated interaction". However, all instructors are removed from their students and all interaction is mediated in some way. Instructors typically use speech, gestures and graphic means (chalk on blackboard) to communicate and the large literature on classroom teaching techniques indicates it is not a perfect process. This mediation is make more obvious when it breaks down, such as where the instructor and students speak different languages or when one or other of the parties has a speech, hearing, sight or other disability. Also I suggest that defining "distance education" as being in a different place is also not technically correct as teachers and students can't occupy precisely the same space.
Kanuka and Conrad (2003) also explore definitions of distance education exploiting the efficiencies brought about by being able to use the same educational materials with large numbers of students. But this is also not a new phenomonon: the blackboard (and before it the sand table) and the raked lecture theatre are forms of technology designed to allow one teacher to be heard and seen by many students.
The use of the term "non-contiguously" by Kanuka and Conrad (2003) to describe distance education does not appear appropriate, as this term usually describes areas next to each other. Also the characterisation of student and teacher being "separated" does not on its own provide a useful definition, as apart from early schooling, students do not spend more than about an hour at a time with the one teacher.
I suggest the problem is not in defining what distance education is, but the assumptions and lack of clarity in conventional non-distance education. It has been assumed that if the teacher and student are in physical proximity that communication and learning will naturally take place. Where this communication does not occur there is an anomaly to be corrected. I suggest that this assumption needs to be challenged.
I once attended a seminar on pedagogy where the presenter explained that research showed students can only listen for about 20 minutes at a time and then said "Now for the next two hours I will tell you about...". I did not pay attention to what was said fater that: if the speaker did not listen towhat they were saying, why should I? ;-)

Distance learning versus distance education

Kanuka and Conrad (2003) discuss the recent shit to using the term "distance learning" in place of "distance education", with the rise the popularity of student-centered learning. They come down on the side of using "distance education" to describe what the education institution provides, and "distance learning" what the students do with what is provided.  This to me seems a reasonable extension of the conventional meanings of education and learning, but does not greatly expand out understanding.

Distributed learning

Kanuka and Conrad (2003) next turn their attention to "distributed learning", including flexible and open learning. They relate this to early print based correspondence education, but while apparently accepting the importance of the heritage of this form of education, reject the new term.
Kanuka and Conrad (2003) curiously argue that information dissemination and resource enrichment via communications technology are not integral to distance learning. They seem to be arguing that some form of computer technology is required.
The dated nature of the paper by Kanuka and Conrad, which is from 2003 is evident from the next section on "E-terms" such as  "e-learning" which were popular around the turn of the last century. 
The next term discussed is
"flexible learning". This is popular in the Australian vocational education sector, but does not refer exclusively to distance education. The libraries at Australian vocational education campuses have been turned into "flexible learning centres", such as the flexible learning and teaching spaces at CIT Gungahlin.

Kanuka and Conrad (2003)  criticise the use of the terms "flexible learning" and "open learning". However, it is not clear to me what any of this has to do with distance education, as flexible and open education can be done in a classroom with a teacher present.  
Kanuka and Conrad (2003)  find hybrid and blended learning as acceptable terms of the combination of conventional classroom and on-line learning. In Australia today, the term "blended learning" is commonly used. However, the range of blends is not normally defined. As it would be very rare to find any course which does not provide at least some materials and alternatives on-line, the term becomes meaningless, unless the proportion of blend is specified.
Kanuka and Conrad (2003) ask if "driving" was redefined due to new vehicles. While presumably the answer they expect is "no", that is not the case. In response to the introduction of the automatic transmission, a new category of driver's licence was introduced. A more extreme case are unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), where the practice in the US Army is to refer to an "operator", rather than a "pilot". Also in answer to their question, new forms of "eating" have been defined for new cuisines. 
Kanuka and Conrad (2003) argue that telecommunications did not alter the essence of distance education. However, I suggest that the use of real video and audio and (to a lesser extent) text chat, has been used to try and replicate the classroom experience, not distance education. Use of electronic documents and stored video/audio delivered on-line have been used to  replicate paper and video broadcast based distance education. Some educators argue that their form of distance education is new and revolutionary, so it is not surprising they want to use new terminology (also marketers want to have educational products appear to be new and revolutionary).

It would be interesting to see what Kanuka and Conrad (2003) would make of "Massive Open Online Courses" (MOOCs), as the newest form of distance education terminology. In my view there is little to separate MOOCs from previous distance education, while MOOC proponents deny this. What is perhaps more worrying is that some MOOC proponents are not aware there is previous work on technology based distance education and so are not learning from decades of work, or choose to ignore it.

Kanuka and Conrad (2003) conclude by asking educators to "... resist the seduction of catchy labels and the temptation to mark our intellectual territory by layering new jargon over the old". However, as the hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in thousands of MOOCs show, the attraction of a catchy new label can be very successful, at least for a time. It would be little comfort for an educator to know they were using terminology correctly if the result was they missed out on millions of dollars of funding as a result.
As is clear with the changing temology since Kanuka and Conrad's 2003 paper, no one is much interested in fixing the termonoloigy of distacne edcuation. In the marketplace of ideas, terms come and go and will continue to do so.

Shale, also writing in 2003, begin by supporting Kanuka and Conrad's criticism of a proliferation of terms for distance education, then go on to ask what is at the heart of "distance education". Unfortunately Shale does not provide any useful definition and seems to be more interested in arguing the case as to if distance education is an effective form of education, rather than what it is.

Conrad (2003), as with the previous two papers looked at (Shale 2003 and Kanuka & Conrad 2003) laments the loose use of terminology for distance education, in this case the use of "e" as a prefix, such as in e-learning.  However, this assumes that academics in general (and educators in particular) are in a position to influence what terminology is used. They argue that "this lexicon negatively impacts the nature and shape of the work we do". However, this assumes that the "we" doing the work are academics and that they have a say in the terminology used. In practice the meaning of words is set by their everyday use and the meaning and terms used change over time.

Conrad (2003), looks at early discussion of what to call what is now known as "The Internet". I was part of those discussions, in Australia, which suggested 'Cyberspace' and we managed to sell this `shared hallucination' to public servants, parliamentarians and Cabinet Ministers (Clarke and Worthington, 1994).

Conrad (2003), started out criticising new terms of distance education and asked what its essence was, but in the end did not manage to distil that essence. It would be interesting to see what Conrad thinks of today's use of terms such as "Massive Open Online Course" (MOOC).


Clarke, R., and T. Worthington. "Vision for a Networked Nation: The Public Interest in Network Services." Proceedings ofthe Conference oft/Je International Telecom-mnicutions Society, Sydney,] uly. 1994.
Conrad, D. (2003). Stop the e-train! A plea for the thoughtful use of language in computer-conferenced contexts. Open Learning, 18 (3), 262-269.
Kanuka, H., & Conrad, D. (2003). The name of the game: Why "Distance Education" says it all. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 4 (4), 385-393.
Shale, D. (2003). Does "distance education" really say it all -- or does it say enough?: A commentary on the article by Kanuka and Conrad. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 4 (4), 395-401.

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