Distance Learning #4 – On Distance Learning and Pornography, pt. 2

Posted on Dec 2, 2009

This is Part 2 of a commentary on Distance Learning, as compared and contrasted to Pornography.

PLEASE NOTE: The following comments may be considered offensive by some. I assure you that I am not trying to be provocative with the intent of irritating or offending anyone personally. Please consider, for the moment, that the comparative study of pornography and distance learning can be conducted with legitimate academic discussion, in spite of the potentially exploitative, abusive and sometimes illegal nature of pornography. This is a phenomenological comparison, not a moral one.

I recently read an article on how Distance Learning is described as effective: “What makes a difference? A practical analysis of research on the effectiveness of distance education”. The article is available here, and I found it to be very informative. Here is an attenuated Abstract:

The purpose of the study was to identify factors that affect the effectiveness of distance education. The results show that although the aggregate data of available studies show no significant difference in outcomes between distance education and face-to-face education as previous research reviews suggest, there is remarkable difference across the studies. Further examination of the difference revealed that the outcome of distance education is associated with a number of pedagogical and technological factors. The authors conclude that the research leads to some important suggestions for and about distance education: interaction is key to effective distance education; the right mixture of human and technology seems most beneficial; distance education may be more appropriate for certain content; some learners my be more able to take advantage of distance education; and distance education seems to be getting more effective. Zhao and his colleagues point out that the findings highlight an important and often neglected fact about the distance education literature: distance education programs, just like traditional education programs, vary a great deal in their outcomes.

Included in the text is a statement from Douglas Shale as follows:

In sum, distance education ought to be regarded as education at a distance. All of what constitutes the process of education when teacher and student are able to meet face-to-face also constitutes the process of education when teacher and student are physically separated. [Shale, D. (1990). Toward a reconceptualization of distance education. In M. G. Moore (Ed.), Contemporary issues in American distance education (pp. 333-343). Oxford: Pergamon Press.p. 334]

I will admit that I have no academic background worthy of casting criticism of Mr. Shale’s work. My commentary, instead, is directed towards his fundamental comparison between DL and f2f learning.  I am suggesting that if the starting point in a comparative study between DL and f2f – be it analysis or meta-analysis – is to suggest that they are essentially the same but for physical distance, then I believe the research will continue to find disparate results, and contradictory effect sizes in effectiveness. The two comparitents are not the same – not quite apples and oranges, more like apples and applesauce. I think we all recognize this as apparent, but I would like to filter Shale’s statement through my pornography lens a bit further.

In my previous comparison of f2f and DL against the phenomena of pornography and live intimacy, I stated that there is a relationship between pornography and that which it serves as its expedient. Pornography can be analyzed to the extent of defining an operationalized, high-quality application of the pornographic material (and its delivery) to serve the need of the consumer. But the analysis of pornography in any dimension will not change the nature of what it is. It can only be associated with “real” sex under the broader term of “sexuality”. Or, as in the other comparison of f2f to DL, “educationality”. In other words, we sense that there is something semantically “education-y” or “learning-ish” in DL, but that it is somehow apart (to use a distance description) or distinct (to use a morphological term) from “education” or “learning” as a construct of historical (and perhaps evolutionary – see previous posts on ecology model) learning convention.

I propose to go a step further and stop calling distance learning, “distance learning”. It is like calling pornography “distance sex”. It’s not distance sex – it’s pornography. It has its own name and its own discrete transactional terms that are independent from “real” sex in the practical aspect of it (generally – the market is not overflowing with “porn for couples” though it does exist in a small minority). I am also granting that since f2f interaction will still involve real human faces, and other physically significant factors such as proximity, dimensionality, gravitational presence, etc., that it should be referred to as “real”, but only in the “flesh” sense, not necessarily in terms of being an exclusively authentic form of learning.

I believe if we named distance learning something unique, it would psychologically untether both teachers and learners from thinking about DL as if it is somehow a yeast-like bud that is blobbing off the torso of f2f learning. It needs to be developed on its own terms – with horizontal dimensions and mixtures of learning styles. The result of this developmental shift would be the ability to research DL effectiveness within the unique domain of itself. To do this, DL must first reject f2f learning as a term upon which it is judged, and institutions must separate DL and f2f as if they are congruent forms of learning. (In other words, if I wanted an MS in IDDE, I could chose the “f2f school” or the “DL school”, and not be forced into either or both).

Finally, an anecdote. My sister Julie (a filmmaker) once described to me that there are two ways a person can review a film: as a film among other films, or a film among the body of other film work of a certain artist or director. She brought this up because she had once read a hilariously satirical review of a Pia Zadora movie that conformed to the second review method above. (For those who do not know, Pia Zadora was one of the worst actresses in the world, but by virtue of her wealthy husband, became the star of a series of terrible movies). Of course, the review was glowing, stating that “it is among the best films Pia Zadora has ever made.” It was still, of course, a terrible movie.

I believe an evaluative method for DL should be determined one way or the other as well.

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