Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Comparisons

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 25, 2000

"Farhad Saba, Ph. D." wrote:

 Here we go again comparing apples and oranges--

Cliches are dangerous, and often mislead. This is a case in point. Of course, one could compare apples and oranges; it is done all the time. Apples, mostly, are red; oranges, mostly, are green. Apples grow in temperate climates; oranges grow in Mediterrenean or sub-tropical climates. Apples cost two dollars a dozen, oranges cost two fifty a dozen.

Indeed, the essence of comparison is that the entities being compared *are* different; there would be no point to a comparison otherwise.

 There is a fundamental flaw in comparing the so-called classroom instruction, and distance instruction.

Nobody more than I is aware of the fundamental difference between distance education and traditional education, or for that matter, between either of those and online learning. This means that comparisons must be treated with caution. It does not mean that comparisons are not possible at all.

 The mind set of such comparisons is that in distance education everyone would receive the same one-size-fit-all treatment of the classroom. In reality, pacing is just one form of individualization available to the distant learner. There are many other forms of individualization that are afforded to a distant learner which are just not present in the classroom environment.

Here we have a case in point. Can we compare pacing in traditional classrooms as distinct from distance or online learning? Insofar as each is a series of activities occuring through time, of course we can. A variety of measures is available, most of which (if not all) will be expressed as an activity which occurs through a duration of time.

Is it appropriate to treat distance or online learning as a "one size fits all" methodology? Of course not; indeed, when we compare pacing in one mode versus another, we see that in distance or online learning, many pacing models are possible (we also observe that in traditional in-class learning, varying pacing models are also possible (which is how I acquired Grade 13 Economics in Grade 12 and Grade 11 Geography in Grade 10)).

The fact that a person has made a comparison does not commit that person to the assumptions made by any (or even every) person who has previously made the comparison. Each comparison must be weighed on its own merits, and the question asked, "is this an appropriate comparison?"

In my own thinking, I always employ a model of distance and online learning where instruction is customized and personalized (even though in practice it does not always turn out that way). But such an attitude does not preclude comparisons, it merely means that I have to be careful what I am quantizing.

Because a distance student may take six months, for example, while a traditional student may take dour, it would be a mistake to conclude that the distance student received "more" instruction, or gained "more" learning. Indeed, the point of my previous post was that piling up a student's workload does not entail that "more" of anything is produced.

But note that I cannot even make that point unless I engage in a comparison, because I need to see what it is in traditional learning that the designer is attempting to approximate. It is a *separate* (and still relevant) question as to whether we ought to replicate that component; but it was not one I was asking, and not one I ought to be obligated to ask in every discussion. One step at a time.

 .... This is not an argument for the superiority of one form of learning vs. the other. This is just to say that they are totally different, and their comparison as we have seen in numerous studies in the past would not yield any useful results.

I believe previous studies have yielded useful results: the studies, for example, which aregue that students can learn things in both traditional and distance learning (the "no significant difference" studies have this as their essential point).

And in fact, traditional and distance learning are not "completely different"; I would wager that the two forms of learning have more in common than either has with a nuclear explosion, a school of fish, or a golden buddha. Online and traditional learning are united by similarity of desired outcomes, similarity of intended audiences (humans, in all cases, usually humans wishing to learn something). Where there is a point of similarity, there is a legitimate point of comparison.

 In fact, I would venture to say that it is hindering us to focus on the real issue in distance education.

 Distance education is a product of the post-industrial information culture. While schools tried to standardize instruction for everyone to make them useful on the factory floor for conducting routines, the challenge of distance education is to respond to individual differences of learners and make instruction as diversified as possible. This is to fuel the engine of the post industrial culture the survival of which depends on innovation and not uniformity.

Today's citizen is much more useful to society as a "consumer" than as a "worker" and much education (and media in general) has been dedicated toward fostering a definition of self through one's possessions. This is an information age phenomenon, well documented (see Lasn's "Culture Jam" or Klein's "No Logo" or even my own "Hacking Memes" <>).

A critical perspective on education which is based on the "factory floor" model of teaching and learning is, to say the least, out of date. This is not to say that it is nowhere practised, but rather, that this is not a model which informs contemporary learning. Much more interesting and relevant are issues such as cultural identity and self awareness, media literacy and (and as compared to) critical thinking, user- generated (versus socially generated or corporately generated) learning objectives, the impact of freedom of time and place on community and the social structure of learning, and the integration of learning activities with other life activities, as exemplified in, say, interest-based communities of practice.

Now it turns out, in my opinion, that there is a community dimension to all forms of learning (and it instantiates itself in most of the issues just listed), and hence, when a distance course designer substitutes "more work" for a community building practice, such as in-class discussions, I need to examine whether the substitution is successful, that is, whether the desired goals of community building, which should be goals of both traditional and distance learning, are met by the substitution for "discussion" of "more work". And even the slightest examination of the subject matter is sufficient to show this; yet were I not able to compare this dimension of learning in both a traditiona and online setting, the comparison would not be possible, with the result that distance students would continue to be assigned more work under the mistaken belief that something positive is being accomplished thereby.

 Comparing distance education to classroom instruction is analogous to comparing a blender and a salad chopper and mixer.

All three tools are employed to prepare foods. Two are electrified (blender and mixer) while one is operated manually (chopper). In the context of teaching a course in food preparation, if electricity is not available, it is necessary to focus on the chopper; otherwise any of the three tools may be discussed. Have I made my point...?

 They both might look the same at the first glance, however, the product of a mixer is homogenized, but the product of a salad chopper-mixer is quite the opposite. I hope this analogy makes sense -- I am using it for the first time, your feedback is much appreciated. I am off the to the kitchen....

The product of a mixer is homogenized, while the product of a chopper (as typically applied; the Star Trek androd Data can create a homogenized mix using only a chopper) is not homogenized. This comparison - note that it *is* a comparison if one is considering whether to use a chopper or a blender in a bartending course - since bartenders require homogenized products, clearly a blender is required. From our previous comparision, it follows that in order to teach a course in bartending, you must have electricity, would would make "Bartending" a bad course to offer on a backwoods educational camp-out.


Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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