Vol. 16 : No. 7< >
A Plague On All Our Houses
Elizabeth Perrin, Ph.D., Journal Editor
Distance Learning is a conflicted arena of human endeavor if there ever was one. Actually, in Education there is nothing so insignificant that it cannot be contentious. Education, I submit, overall does not have now nor has ever had a non-controversial, enviable reputation. It has long been separated form the elitist areas of human learning, the so called "hard sciences" where practitioners and researchers are wrapped in the warm comfort of "an atom is an atom is an atom."
Well perhaps, but the atom now has considerably more parts than it had when I first took Physics. The discipline of Physics did not split itself into factions about the existence of neutrinos or quarks, but set about the process of inclusion of these phenomena within the discipline. (This is not to be confused about the divergence between wave theory and particle theory that has divided researchers for so long. This is dispute is not about the phenomena observed but about its significance.) And, when you get into sub-atomic particles these days, it reads like a Pokemon History with benefit of Flash.
From my favorite List serv comes a plethora of views about both Education and Distance Learning. One of the most depressing positions is taken by some of our professional Education leaders and has to do with equating test results with knowledge of the discipline tested. From the bully pulpit not long ago came the triumphant statement that when a student is given a test and knows the answers, then we have proof that student knows the subject and that the teaching/school experience has been successful. The action item determined from this assessment was 'increase testing'. From the floor of either the house or the senate, there was, so far as I have been able to determine, no glimmer of concern about the validity of the assumption, only about the cost of increased testing.
Not so long ago "teaching to the test" was considered pedagogically unacceptable. Now it appears teaching to the test is hailed as an accepted cure for our education malaise. We have moved from measurement of an innate ability in test taking to measurement of the students' ability to learn the test and the teachers' ability to teach it.
However, practitioners of Education voice a growing concern with the equation of testing and learning. From the elementary school area comes the stressed cry of the teachers who state that now three months of the nine month school year is devoted to preparation for and then administration of the newly required testing - the results of which determine the educational reimbursements received by schools and school districts. From Distance Learning sector come voluminous reports on how to administer tests to the Distance Learning student that will be absolutely "tamper proof" and identical in control to that exercised over the student under the direct observation of the professor.
Add to this cacophony, the loud debates on significance of learning styles, of interaction, of instructional design, of single or multiple mode media deliveries, of blended learning configurations, of student technology competence, of quality of learning, i.e. F2F versus Distance, forms of Distance Learning. Sub Atomic fermions are beginning to look positively simple.
We add to this the questions of economics: the need for and the growth of education overall and where will this take place. In a Booz-Allen-Hamilton report, http://www.line56.com/articles/default.asp?ArticleID=3811, there are figures presented that indicate the growth in the e-learning marketplace "is poised to go from $5.3 billion in 2000 to $133.6 billion in 2004. This pace would outstrip the growth of the education marketplace itself, which will go from $105 billion in 2000 to $145 billion in 2004." According to co-author Reggie Van Lee, the institutions most likely to benefit are institutions of higher learning. Since we are talking "e-learning", we need a far more accurate understanding of what Education in general and Distance Learning in particular are all about with due consideration to the costs of ignorance.
In closing I quote from Stephen Downes on The Science of Education (DEOS-L, July 8, 2002).