Distance Learning #2

Posted on Nov 19, 2009

More on my mania about Distance Learning – spoken freely and without references.

Do we all have the same standards by which be believe we have been “taught”? Did the 20-year-olds I met in my Spanish 102 class last Spring at a local community college believe they had learned in the same sense as I did?

We all covered the same material, though I suspect I felt less “taught” than they did. It seemed I was over-studying for the exams (though I assure you I never earned a 100 on any test!).

I am suggesting here that there is a nearly infinite level of learning that can take place under a given situation, such as in the Spanish 102 class above (a face-to-face class, I might add). If I was imprisoned 24 hours a day in solitary confinement, except for the three hours a week I spent in Spanish 102, I would have probably ended up memorizing the entire book, and perhaps had numerous conversations with myself too.

With that unrealistic scenario aside, I will go far as to say that I felt I had a much more motivated learning ethic in the class driven by the spooks that drive me to excel in other classes (it certainly wasn’t for the love of Spanish).

Call it the Fear of God, but whatever it is, I sense that it is a variable worth accounting for in one’s sense of being “taught”. It is one thing to learn – another to feel that you know the information against some standard by which you are accountable.

Some rhetorical questions:

“If my expectations for learning are higher than yours, doesn’t that make our respective course evaluations unequal as well?

“If you and I disagree that distance learning is as effective as F2F learning, could it be that it is because of variables other than learning style preferences?”

“What does it mean to feel ‘taught’? Is distance learning messing up our standards in some way”

Face-to-face learning is the method by which humans lived, evolved, and survived to this day. Can we say that learning is primarily anything else but this? Is anything else but F2F learning some distortion of “real” learning?

How far can we deviate from primal interaction before we risk some kind of calamity along the lines of what is predicted if genetically mutated crops overtake natural biodiversity? Can adaptations “catch up” with every new technology to account for the fundamental needs of the human learning ecology? How would we know if we haven’t? Will it show up as some sort of phenotype like a cloned animal that lives only a few weeks?

I have said in a few discussions that each technological addition to the primary learning experience fundamentally changes the epistemological model of what is learned. Methods of processing information through a tool changes the way the information is characterized. For example, if you present a concept as a video rather than a text document, you are compelled to account for the unique characteristics of the video medium – how viewers approach the experience of watching a video, what conventions they hold with regard to “voice”, point-of-view, messaging of the producer (is it the maker’s voice or a persona created by the maker? Is it meant to be a contrarian stance, an ironic stance?). While these variables also exist in text, video watching is a linear experience that unfolds at its pace, not the reader’s pace. As a maker of video content, your approach to communicating your message must be shaped in a way that makes sense within the convention.

So what does this mean in the comparison of face-to-face learning to distance learning? I have been offered an ecological model to use as a method for describing how technology disrupts a learning environment’s equilibrium. Let me explain using a recent event.

I was reading a Wikipedia article a few nights ago to my 5-year-old daughter, whose obsession de jour is Venus Fly Traps. The article included a statement about the ecological effect of transplanting them from their native environments to greenhouses, homes, etc. The effect on the remaining plants, it said, is that it disturbs the naturally occurring competition for resources in the in situ environment. It disrupts the natural selection process, and artificially causes certain traits to flourish or recede. This effect can result in extinction once natural re-balancing occurs. I am not a biologist, but I get the idea.

I am concerned about the consequences of deviating from face-to-face learning, and with it being used as more than just an adjunct to, or an alternative to f2f learning. Actually, I am more concerned with educators failing to explain to learners why the use of technology in the learning environment is intended to serve a particular purpose. I do not want students to think that the use of technology constitutes a newer, better form of learning when in actuality it is only an adapted form.

From here, I am going to embark on studying learning as if it were, figuratively, a sentient being. I feel it is valuable to inform students that they “own” their learning persona, and that it is something that needs to be fulfilled, nurtured, challenged, evaluated, and perhaps offered a vacation once or twice a year.

You hear people say, idiomatically, “My instincts tell me that this will probably not happen,” or “My love life just doesn’t know what’s going to happen next.” Never have I heard anyone say “My learning thinks this is not going to work to well for me here.” I need to explore this “being” in more depth.

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