There’s an interesting comment under that last post about the importance of having common definitions — what I’ve called “terms of convenience.” They’re terms we know mean one thing, but we use them to signify another. The key element there is that the meaning comes from context and that the meaning is known to be variant depending on that context.
Take the term “distance education.” It actually developed from an early one – “correspondence school.” The interesting juxtaposition here is that the latter is more descriptive and perhaps more accurate than the former. Unfortunately, the negative connotations accruing to “correspondence school” because of a long history of shoddy and inappropriate implementations of “correspondence school” stripped the term of any credibility. Nobody who was serious about education could afford to be associated with a “correspondence school.”
I’ve said in other venues that the first technology that allowed for the separation of teacher and learner in geography was “spoken language.” The first technology that permitted the separation of teacher and learner in time was “written language.” Everything after that is just implementation of those two basic ideas. Use an augmentation to transmit the voice directly across a distance in real time, or use a different augmentation to encode the message into some medium that can be retrieved later. In communications terms, that’s synchronous and asynchronous communication.
Every so-called “instructional technology” can be categorized into one of those two forms. They are, by the way, mutually exclusive. Some technology is “educational” but not “instructional” so I’m being precise in this definition.
Which brings us back to the term of convenience, “distance education.”
Modern distance ed goes back to the middle of the 1800s when a man named Pitman began a correspondence school to teach shorthand by mail. Television was probably the next big technological step with the “tele-courses” in the fifties and sixties where the lecture would be broadcast by TV. On footnote in this history is the “school of the air” that serves kids in Australia’s outback. Teachers use shortwave radio to teach kids isolated on the ranches and sheep stations. The general tenor of “distance education” was “correspondence school” — sometimes augmented with broadcast.
The web changed all that.
When it became clear that the web and its various affordances — pages, blogs, discussion boards, etc — were being adopted by large numbers of people, the platform became a viable one for educational purposes. Many of the courses offered online, even today, are (a) webified correspondence courses or (b) “shovel-ware” — courses where the instructor put the lecture notes and powerpoints online and runs the discussion board like a Q&A session.
There was a transitional period in the 70s and 80s with people like Otto Peters and the “industrialization” of education (what I call the University of Phoenix model) and Desmond Keegan who polled organizations who were doing something they called “distance education” to find out what comprised those programs.
Keegan’s six characteristics have been instrumental in shaping modern distance delivery but I’m not convinced that he’s done us an unvarnished service. His methodology is based — not on any theoretical foundation but on a survey. “What are you doing in this program you call ‘distance education’?” When he condensed the responses to the six most common characteristics, those characteristics became codification of a de facto standard of what makes up a distance education experience.
Unfortunately, they’re useless at defining what distance education could be because they’re predicated on what novice practitioners were doing and calling distance education. Without any kind of theoretical foundation, this set of characteristics has focused three decades of practice.
So, for the purposes of this class, at least for this one week, I’ve insisted that we examine the actual underpinnings of what “distance education” really means. We can go back to using it as a term of convenience next week where it’ll represent courses offered under circumstances where the teacher and student are not in relatively close geographical proximity at the same time. As we use that term of convenience, underneath it is the acknowledgment that all we are doing is A) using some technology to transmit the class’s speech across a distance too great to be overcome by lungs and vocal cords or B) encoding the messages for transmission across space and time using some medium other than sound.