Thursday, April 07, 2005

Closer is better?

There is a lot of activity these days about trying to make distance education (and distance technologies in general) as much like face to face as possible (as if we have a great record of communication, transformation, and harmony in our face to face lives!). Underlying these efforts is the (I think) unconscious and unreflective assumption that what we do in our face to face encounters is unproblematic, knowable, and preferable. I think that a fundamental issue that isn't much talked about is the basic definition of what learning is - or even more broadly communication.

I recently came across an article that used the term 'bandwidth' to describe the relationship between 'student' and 'teacher' in relation to issues in distance education. To me this characterization assumes the adoption of the 'conduit' metaphor in coming to understand communication - that is, the transmission of content from one brain to the other. I believe that our relationships are more strange than that. Much of my thinking is informed by Maturana, autopoiesis, and a biological/systems interpretation of our phenomenological experience.If, as I believe, we are not so much 'informed' by a communication message as we are 'perturbed' then the notion of distance becomes less Euclidian and more Einsteinian (so to speak).

By this I mean that the 'length' issue isn't as important as the 'like' issue. How much are we 'like' or 'familiar' with our interlocutors? Do we have a basis, need, or motivation to be in this relationship? Obviously this is part of the basic set up of standard educational contexts - many students would probably not be in school if they weren't somehow incented to be there through either force (K-12) or fear (post secondary).

My point is that the question of motivation to stay in relationship is more important than the physics of communication in either proximal or distal settings. I think we conflate these two issues in many discussion of distance in education. There is no question that being face to face with someone - in each other's presence, is our natural and adapted state - however, simple letter writing has historically extended & deepened relationships in a way that has satisfied and motivated people for a long time.I think that what is happening to education with the advent of the web and all its bells and whistles is that it is exposing core inconsistencies in our rhetoric about teaching and learning.

In my opinion the 'factory model' of education doesn't work to educate - it works to instruct and train. For much of instruction and training (say learning to be a physician) it is critical that we be proximal to our patients, mentors, and other necessary personnel. For other types of instruction where simulations will do as well (for example Air Traffic Control school) we can work and learn virtually. As anyone that has taught pre-school or elementary school (or their own children) knows - we don’t so much ‘instruct’ kids into learning how to read as we ‘love’ them into it.

Good elementary education is based on relationships of trust, respect, and love. Education, in my view, remains apart from these discussions. Education is about relationships that result in transformation. Mutual transformation. I think that too many of our professional educators believe that it is only a one way street. Distance education is possible and powerful if people are open to being in dialogue. In fact, the technology may well afford a greater and greater incidence of this type of transformative relationship.

However, I don't think it will be pioneered by our current professional cadre of 'educators'. They (we) think we know the answers. It appears that we are really just learning how to ask the right questions.