The Travesty of “Distance Education”

If you watch television, browse the internet, read magazines and newspapers, listen to the radio, or read bulletin boards and billboards, you’ve been bombarded with advertisements about distance education degrees, like those listed below:

  • “Earn an Distance Degree In 5 Days”
  • “Earn a degree online while you keep
working.”
  • “It’s back to school time-Have you
 registered for your online classes?”
  • “Earn A Degree On Your Sched.”
  • “Earn Online Degree Fast
Under $99/Credit hr. Books Included”
  • “Get Your Education Online at an
Accredited University. Apply Now!”
  • “A Quality Education, Convenient For
 The Career-Focused Professional”
  • “Online, Accelerated, Accredited & Affordable Degree Programs-Sign Up! “
  • “Earn Your Degree Fast. 100% Online.
Class Starts Jan. 4th. Apply Now!”
  • “Earn a Degree & Enrich Your Life!”
  • “Get a top degree at your own pace & 
time from an accredited university!”
  • “The Full University Experience
 Anytime, Anywhere. Learn How!”
  • “Pursue your degree online. It’s 
never been easier. Learn how.”
  • “The Smart Choice For Working 
Professionals.”

The first one is among my personal favorites. This ad really provides one with a great deal of confidence about learning how to write poorly (e.g., “an Distance degree”). It also provides an honest assessment of the value of such a degree in terms of the amount of time needed (i.e., “5 days”). The ninth one also models good writing ( i.e., “Earn your degree fast”). However, the one ad that is probably the most outrageous lie is “The Full University Experience Anytime, Anywhere.”

My sarcasm in the last paragraph does not describe just how disturbed and frightened I am about the very dangerous direction we’re taking in education. The “distance” in distance education is much more than the physical distances that such programs offer to span. The real dangerous distance involves a number of major disconnects:

Disconnect #1: “Education” (as in distance education) has nothing to do with “real” learning.

By “real learning,” I mean learning that not only involves deep and extensively interconnected conceptual understandings, but also involves (a) learning how to think deeply, critically, and creatively; (b) developing an identity as a learner and thinker in whatever disciplinary area one is involved; (c) learning how to participate in the community of that particular discipline; and (d) developing complex and meaningful connections to the discipline and its knowledge, ways of thinking, ways of talking, and methods (of knowledge production, inquiry, communication, and so forth). Such “real learning” cannot take place in an online environment, since it requires the connections and relationships to both the experts and compatriot novices in a variety of settings that include classrooms, hallways, offices, coffee shops, and other places where fellow community members relate.

Disconnect #2: Online programs are based on antiquated theories of learning.

Although a number of education researchers and theorists from the late 1800’s through the latter part of the mid-1900’s promoted approaches to learning that focused on “how to inquire” and “how to produce knowledge,” the force that has dominated our schools and views of education for the past 70 years or so has been rooted in behaviorism and the related mechanistic and positivistic concepts. Although very few people will admit to such a view of learning, actions and language betray that denial.

Mechanist, positivist, and behaviorist views are very seductive. They portray a world that is relatively simple and well-structured, with clearly delineated “right answers.” In fact, such a view portrays “learning” as the ability to demonstrate (i.e., select correct answers on tests) one’s recall of specific content knowledge. At the same time, this perspective does not place any value (a) on one’s emotional connections to the discipline; (b) on one’s ability to think analytically, critically, or creatively; (c) on one’s participation in a community of learners or professionals-to-be; (d) on one’s ability to solve problems or generate important questions. Such a view is basically a “deadened” or lifeless view of learning.

More recent research-based and theoretical frameworks of learning (including brain-based learning, constructivist and social constructivism, embodied dynamicism, learning as a complex adaptive system, distributed learning, and others) view learning as quite different. Learning involves much more than simple “book-type knowledge” that is “stored” in one’s brain. In fact, the more we learn about learning, the more we are finding that the processes of learning extend beyond the brain to other parts of our bodies and even beyond our bodies altogether. Basketball players, on-site technology groups, teams of scientists, actors in a performance, and other contexts where groups of people are learning together involves learning that is distributed among and cycles through the physical context and individuals. Conceptual learning is closely interconnected with emotions, values, beliefs, imagery, humor, aesthetics, physical and social experiences, and the whole of our human embodied experience.

When we remove the social experiences and contexts and limit the embodied social experience, we reduce “learning” to the acquisition of knowledge of words and disembodied concepts. When words and concepts are so readily accessible, we do not need education that focuses almost entirely on such knowledge acquisition. We need learning opportunities that focus (a) on the development of thinking that is analytical, critical, and creative (a part of which needs to focus on evaluating knowledge claims found so easily on the internet); (b) on the social negotiation and production of knowledge claims (as processes of participating in learning communities); and (c) on developing complex interconnections with subject matter disciplines that involve emotions, other aspects of our personal “contexts of meaning,” and the distributed aspects of learning and knowing.

Disconnect #3: The possibilities for learning as transformation are severely limited, if not impossible.

Learning, at its best, offers us opportunities to transform. Transformation may be the penultimate “learning outcome.” Such transformations occur when we have engaged in a learning context, when we have been challenged to re-evaluate our assumptions, and when we participate in a social context that both pushes us to delve into the world of ideas and provides the support of a “safe” social environment where we can take risks.

Disconnect #4: Learning as shared human experience does not occur.

As mentioned above, the shared experiences in online environments has a number of problems: (a) actual personal connections cannot happen, where people can see sphere of people and physical context with all kinds of information flowing in complex pathways throughout learning activities (video cannot capture this sphere); (b) shared experiences are limited to written words and possible myopic and/or tunnel-vision video views of others; (c) communication has the potential to be dangerous – that is, to promote disconnected communication where people have no stake in the social connections in an actual physical location; (d) participants cannot smell, feel, touch, and hear (more than whatever is “official,” if that) the context of the physical and social context – all of these senses are important components in developing contextually-embedded learning; (e) people cannot interact with others, including teachers or mentors, and with materials and objects in ways that are more spontaneous. Such interactions are phenomenally more meaningful and relevant to learners.

Disconnect #5: Emergent learning is grossly limited, if not impossible.

One of the most exciting and meaningful learning events occur where some idea, problem, or question emerges from the particular learning community and changes the direction of ensuing activities. Such an emergent curriculum provides a sense of “ownership” (by students) over what is being “studied.” Emergent curriculums value ideas, questions, and problems, while promoting recursive, non-linear approaches to pursuing understanding. On the other hand, almost all online environments are static and linear. Although our system of schooling and likewise most teachers do not promote or value emergent curricular opportunities, they could. Distance education cannot promote emergence. Emergent curricular opportunities occur where the spontaneity of personal interactions, safe environments, and conceptually and materials-rich contexts provide for meaningful, relevant, dynamic, and embodied engagement.

Disconnect #6: Online courses and programs promote a devaluation of engaged and connected learning.

It’s far too easy to play the game of going through the motions or jumping through hoops with little if any emotional and complex engagement in the material. As teachers, we can’t see the faces and body language or look into the eyes of our students as they engage in learning activities. For all we know, someone else is sitting in front of the computer. However, the point is that there is no real dynamic interaction between teacher and students, where teachers can change the dynamics in ways that may further engage students.

Disconnect #7: Learning as induction into a community of practice is one of a severely crippled approach.

As should be evident from the previous six disconnects, online environments are limited in the ability to help induct people into a learning community or community of practice. Virtual “communities” that extend “real” communities may be valuable, but they do not replace “real” communities.

Fundamentally, online distance education is a very poor substitute for education that occurs with groups of people within a physical setting. Of course, many classrooms do not function much differently from those that are offered online. However, we can make changes to such static classrooms, where such changes cannot occur online.

The dangers of treading this path of distance education are summarized in the following points.

  • Learning in a world of easy access to information is omitting the important learning involved:
  • in critical, analytical, and creative thinking;
  • in problem solving;
  • in problem posing;
  • in evaluation of knowledge claims;
  • in promoting knowledge production rather than knowledge consumption among learners;
  • in developing an “identity” as a valued participant in a particular community;
  • in developing the skills and attributes of a community participant;
  • Education is being trivialized.
  • Education is being devalued… even further than it already has been.
  • Learning is becoming increasingly superficial, disconnected, fragmented, and meaningless.
  • Online education is disembodying learning.
  • Online education is undermining the importance of spontaneous social interactions and emergent curriculum.

(originally published December 30, 2009)

About Jeff Bloom

I'm a Researcher with and am on the Advisory Board of the International Bateson Institute and am a professor emeritus with the Department of Teaching & Learning, College of Education, Northern Arizona University.
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