So I was corresponding with a teacher friend of mine, and the notion came up that, 'if a class could have been successfully completed by a chronically absent student, then it should have been a distance ed. class'. I thought, 'Hey, wait a minute', I am absent alot, and I made it through undergrad just fine. Then another friend of mine started complaining about the absolutely pathetic quality of her SFU distance ed. courses.
So this got me thinking...
What is the deal with distance education? There are the basic questions, like why is it offered to students who have the capability to attend regular session and why do teacher get paid as much to 'teach' these courses. Then there are the complex issues of what successful distance education means to the modern university.
So, first off: why do local students take distance education courses? I suppose some learn better when remotely self directed. Often, though, my friends tell me that they take Distance Ed because it fits into their schedule better, or it allows them to work more. I think standard classrooms need to be more flexible with attendance, or they will push students with hectic schedules out the door and onto the disaster - I repeat ABSOLUTE DISASTER - that is modern Distance Ed. I should explain why I consider modern Distance Ed, to be such a sham...
As I said to my teacher friend, Distance Ed can only and should only be taught by professionals trained to offer distance courses. Forget, for a moment, that most of the educators in our universities have less teacher training than every elementary school teacher in the province. There are professors out there teaching distance classes who don't even like to use e-mail, so they have their research students do it for them. This is shameful.
The second point I wanted to make is closely related to the negligence of these computer illiterate professors. Why do we pay a professor as much to teach distance classes when, frankly, most of my traditional courses have better online components than most of the distance course my friends are enrolled in. This all just doesn't make sense.
As a teacher I have a responsibility to observe and report poor pedagogical practice, and much of the distance 'teaching' I see at university today disgusts me. A friend of mine has a Distance Ed. course which features one regular assignment every week, plus two midterm assignments, a final, and two online exams. This alone is no reason to condemn the course, but the 'go and read the outline and just get me the damn work' attitude of the teacher is. I am being taught right now that one of the fatal mistakes that teachers make is to become recalcitrant with lesson plans and schedules, year after year. It is equally dangerous, and damaging for the students, when a teacher writes an original curriculum for a course, but then sets that curriculum on auto-pilot and expects it to do the teaching for him.
I am not saying that Distance Education is bad, but it is poorly managed in many cases. Were it to be properly delivered, however, distance learning could be so powerful. If it were possible to have an online experience which was as vibrant and dynamic as a traditional classroom, then what would this mean for education? On the bright side, it means that anyone with a computer could become a scholar. The One Laptop per Child
program is trying to distribute computers to developing countries; giving these people access to our universities would be a logical next step. Also, our own citizens deserve this type of connectivity. No more do youth in distant, rural areas need to disparage their chances of getting a University education. University is, in many ways, the new high school, and we are creating a massive second-class citizenry with every person we deny academic access to.
On the bad side, however, look at what else might follow from the digitization of university classrooms. We might not need the buildings anymore! I live in Vancouver, and I tell you this, the minute word caught on that all the university students had gone home to work on their laptops the SFU campus would be flooded with homeless people, looking for trivial things like shelter! It would be a curse on the world to free up that much space, right?
Ok, I am being silly. But think about it for a moment...
If we keep accepting the poor quality of distance education being provided today, then those homeless people will never get to camp in the quad!