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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Apr 09, 1998

Posted to DEOS-L 09 April 1998

Sharon and Tom wrote: Answering Sharon's question with studies that show no significant difference doesn't really take the issue very far. It assumes that status quo education is good in the first place so distance ed must be just as good. I would question both assumptions. Proving that most distance ed is just as mediocre as most face-to-face education is not the best use of our time. In my mind, the more useful question should be "What is it we really want to students to learn and how can we do that better?" Most media and delivery comparison studies, and related discussions of same, seem to miss that point entirely. Let's evolve to a higher order question.

First: Showing that there is no significant difference between distance education and traditional education assumes nothing about the quality of either. This may be shown by an analogy:

Analogy: studies show that Fred is just as smart as Wilma. Please note that in this statement there is no presumption that either of them is particularly intelligent, or non-intelligent either.

Analogy: Metcalfe is as populated as Russell. Note that, again, from the statement, you cannot infer anything about the population of either community, only that there is no significant difference between them (in fact, these two communities south of Ottawa each have a population of 2,000, give or take).

Second: The reason it is important to show that there is no significant difference between traditional education and distance education is that education is important. Traditional education at least works to the degree that its graduates are able to go out, get jobs, and generally support themselves. If distance fails to be at least as good, then we run the risk of graduating people who are not able to support themselves. Before moving in any significant degree to distance education, we need to ensure that it will not irreparably destroy a student's education. Showing that it is as good as traditional education shows that, at least, this minimal objective is satisfied.

It is true that there are many sceptics. But because they are sceptical does not mean they are wrong. They are serving the very important function of ensuring that we do not graduate a generation of students who cannot function in society. That would be a disaster from which we could probably not recover. I think the studies go a long way toward allaying that fear. They by no means indicate that the task of improving pedagogy is complete.

The critics of traditional education point to the many areas in which we could improve. Yes, I too have had students in my university classes who I felt were incapable of communicating intelligent thought in a written medium. The task of improving education must continue.

We need to ask:

1. Where is it failing? I don't think we should take a 'The sky is falling' approach to this. Many people talk about the 'Crisis in Education'. This isn't helping. We need to see exactly what learning we would like people to have (and this varies - a lot - from nation to nation, person to person), and identify where those gaps are.

2. We need to identify the cause of non-learning, if we can. Learning why people are unable to learn what we want them to learn helps us move toward a solution. Could it be:

  • we aren't teaching it?
  • we aren't teaching it well?
  • they can't learn it?
  • they don't want to learn it?

3. We need to identify solutions. I sincerely doubt that there will be a one-size-fits-all solution. A recent movement has promoted phonics as the key to learning reading. This probably helped some people. It probably hurt others. In many cases, we will have to identify lapses in learning on a case-by-case basis.

These three steps are as applicable to distance learning as they are to traditional learning.

4. Finally, we need to identify those factors which are beyond the control of educators. If there is indeed a 'crisis in learning', it may be that significant causes of that crisis are not located in the classroom at all.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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