D/E Exam at the Pearly Gates

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One of my fantasies is to stand with Peter at the Pearly Gates where he has entrusted me to interview those from the world of distance education about their role while on earth.  My main gate-keeping task is to be particularly watchful for the anointed in distance education, especially those who propagated by way of annual face-to-face conferences. 

In this fantasy, I could imagine a conversation that went about as follows:

Hibbs:  Sir, I understand you were one of the most accomplished leaders in distance education?  Please tell me about yourself. And your most proud accomplishments?

Dr. KingPin: I am Dr. Anointed KingPin, world famous for my articulations about the wonders of distance education.  For many, many years I was chief organizer to the Distance Learning Worldwide Conference ( DLW C ) held annually.   Ours was the world's largest and the most respected distance education conference.  I am very proud of my role with it.

Hibbs: Tell me about your conference.  How many attended? What did they cost?  Who paid? How did you get people to come?

Dr. KingPin:  Well, Hibbs, first I want you to understand there were many distance education conferences every year, held all over the world.  As the Director of the DLWC, I and my buddies got to go to most of these. Usually they took place in lovely cities at times when the weather was favorable.  Friendly places, like Madison, Wisconsin or on the coast of Georgia (near some lovely golf courses by the way.)  Plus all the usual hot spots - Paris, London, Tokyo, Sydney, Mexico City.  People came from everywhere.  The message we promoted was that geography was no longer any barrier; very often a conference theme was "No Borders".

It was easy to get attendees because we were all connected by email, and we were all on the same list servs.  We made sure to announce our conference several times, so if you were in "our world" it was pretty hard not to hear about our what we were doing and the specifics about each conference.

Hibbs:  How much did it cost to go to one of these?   And who paid?

Dr. KingPin: I would say the average cost, including air fare, hotel, and conference fees was about $3,000.  That is if you were an American going to an American conference.  It would be about double that for those traveling internationally.

But the cost didn't matter too much. You see, Hibbs, the great majority of our attendees came from respected American universities which pretty much had limitless budgets for distance education. Three thousand bucks, or six, was no big deal if you ran in the circles that I did.  (big wink)

Hibbs:  So, how many individuals paid from their own pocket?

Dr. KingPin: Well, we didn't get many of those, except for vendors who wanted to sell us some stuff like computers or video cameras or tools for use in our classrooms. But, I mean, why would anyone pay $3,000 out of their own pocket? That would be pretty silly don't you think?  

Hibbs: Tell me, again—What exactly was the purpose of these conferences?  

Dr. KingPin: Well, the main purpose was to find out all about the new ways we could "deliver" education. There was lots of innovation going on.  You have to understand, Hibbs, we were able to offer courses from more than 1,000 universities worldwide  ---Some of our brochures had on them tag lines like "from Penn State to Perth, from Harvard to Hobart  ---there is no place we cannot serve." 

All the buzz was how universities could recruit students from anywhere!  With new technologies we could eliminate travel and residential costs so the opportunities for more students was really huge.  We wanted everyone to know that there was a revolution in education and that we in distance education were the spearheads of it.  Some of these conferences were about recruiting, some ware about course designs some were about tools; ours was about the whole enchalada.

Hibbs:  Tell me just a wee bit more about the technology...did I hear you refer to this as "tools"?

Dr. KingPin: Yes, "tools" is a good word.  You see, Hibbs, these "tools" were getting cheaper and cheaper because more and more people were on the Internet, which in turn brought more and more vendors to our tables.  Every day there was a new whiz bang.  Every month it got cheaper.  Educators came to our conferences to hear about these tools and how they were being used.  And also to find out what worked best to attract more students.

Hibbs:  As a leader of distance technology, how did you find out about these tools?  And their application?

Dr. KingPin:  Well, of course we heard about them on the Net.  Not only that, most of the time we could try out the tools for free!  The manufacturers were falling all over themselves to get us to experiment.  The really good news is that almost all the tools could be used by anyone with an ordinary computer and an ordinary hook up to the Internet.   We called our recruiting efforts -  "Reaching Every Desktop".

Hibbs:  So the new "tools" allowed you to hold classes . . . what do you call it? . . . virtually?  

Dr. KingPin: Yes, Hibbs . . . that is the key word: VIRTUAL. That means you could get an education "virtually".....from the very best universities in the world.  It took us a long time, but we finally were able to convince prospects that the quality of the "virtual" classroom was equal to that of the residential.  Some even believed "virtual" was better than residential, considering the ease of communications and the interactive benefits.  (I never quite got around to that point of view!) Plus,with all the chatter about the so called digital divide, and affordability, and access, we pretty much had to toe the party line that distance education was as good as being on the campus.  You know how that goes, Hibbs.  (big wink)

Hibbs: Yes, I'm catching on. You must have used those same "tools" so people could attend your conferences?  Tell me more about the virtual parts of your conference?

Dr. KingPin:  Oh, Hibbs, you must be joking?  Hold them virtually?   Gawd!  If the word ever got out that we could hold these conferences virtually, can you imagine where that would lead? Sure, we could have easily done some keynote webcasting, and made available text chat rooms and put some presentations on-line.  Even archive some of it, I suppose.  That would have been fall down easy.  But once you start down that path, how do you stop?   I mean you put one hole in the dike and pretty soon you have a flood.

Hibbs:  So what did you do if the subject of webcasting came up?  Or putting conference materials and presentations up on the web for those who couldn't come physically?


Dr. KingPin: We simply held a hard line that we wouldn't offer any part of our conferences virtually.  We made it darn clear that if you wanted to be with the Big Wheels in distance education you either came to our conference.  Or you got left behind.  That shut a lot of people up.  (chuckle chuckle)  Sometimes, Hibbs, you just have to lead with a firm hand. (chuckle chuckle)

Hibbs: Well, help me out.  I'm confused.  Do I have this straight?  You tell me that your students can get a fine education in virtual classrooms. You tell me that the same tools for a virtual classroom would be used for a virtual conference.  And you tell me that the vendors were cooperative in allowing demonstrations.  Wouldn't your conference be an ideal place to display the tools virtually? And to talk about them on-line?  What am I missing?

Dr. KingPin:   What you're missing is my point!  Are you crazy?  Can you imagine what would happen if we went virtual?  First, our attendance would drop like a stone.  And, second, the budget cutters would not approve travel for a lot of attendees who don't have as much clout as us guys at the top. And, third - and I gotta tell ya this, Hibbs, just between us boys -  most of us running the show really didn't know how to work all the gadgets.  What would happen to our reputation if we got up there and didn't know how to operate the friggin keyboard?  Get a grip Hibbs!  This is scary stuff.  We had a real tight rope to walk.  One slip and the curtain might just come down on the whole show.

Besides, Hibbs, it's not THAT easy to hold a conference virtually. 

Hibbs:  How hard is it?

Dr. KingPin:  Well first, you have to have the equipment all set up.  Plus the connections.

Hibbs:  Well, since the bulk of you were from universities, where the tools were in place, why not use those facilities?

Dr. KingPin:  Gawd Hibbs!  What part of the universe did you come from???  I mean just because universities had the equipment didn't mean we could use it for conferences!  ~~~   Hibbs, did you ever try to do something novel at a university?  Do you know how many meetings and how much wrangling goes on for even simple stuff?  Hibbs, please don't confuse me with those corporate guys. who get a lot of room to maneuver.  We in Academia don't have that advantage.  Flexibility is something the academic world just ain't got. Period.  End of story.  Understand this Hibbs:  Push too hard for something new at a university and pretty soon you are in the bread line. 

(Come to think of it, Hibbs, maybe The Big Boss would work on that... ..believe making change easy at the university would take a big miracle!)  (ha ha)

Hibbs: I see. Well, Dr. KingPin, just before you came here I met a pretty interesting guy who told me he had a different angle on all of this  —I forget his name, Roger Philadelphia or something like that—anyway this Roger guy talked about using a $20 head set and the telephone so you could broadcast—or did he say webcast?-  using a cell phone, nothing more...something like that.  Anyway, this guy chewed my ear off about about the conferences he held inside universities in Finland and Brazil and China and a dozen other places in some really remote places on earth.  Some of them where held in places with bad connections and outdated equipment.  He said he could overcome those problems with a little elbow grease and some imagination.   I mean this guy was pretty proud that his attendees could attend virtually from anyplace on the planet.  Come to think of it,  I believe he said he contacted you?  Offered to help you out for free?  Wadja say to him?

Dr. KingPin:  Well, sure, everybody heard of Mr. Philadelphia.  I think he group he lead was The Philadelphia Path, or something like that.  But you know, Hibbs, this Mr. Philadelphia did not even have a Ph.d; he's just some community college professor operating down in the south, Texas or Alabama or someplace like that.  Sure, I heard him say you could webcast for free; but, as I say, "free" wasn't the issue with us.  As for using audio telephony and free phone calls and video linked to television, ya I kinda heard about that too.  Couldn't help it.  His followers were always on the news group lists with stuff nobody ever heard of.  Inside our circle we called him the"Pick N Save" nut case, ... what he did was use a little of this and a little of that, sort of patch things together with duck tape, if you know what I mean.  Come on.  How far do you get using duck tape? (wink)

Hibbs:  Wasn't there another here pal of this Philadelphia guy....what was his name? Dr. Greening.  Dr. Yellow?  I forget.

Dr KingPin:  Ya, he's the guy who came out of ham radio and showed off some way to link the Internet to the ham radio set.  Did a demonstration out of  Antarctica - or was it Nepal?   He even got a doctorate about exciting students... or something like that.  I forget.  But, ya, there was some noise about that right at the turn of the century.  But who cared?  I mean who would pay attention to those guys?  Last I heard they even had a guy in India working with fifty cent radios.  Or was it Nigeria?   I mean, who had time for stuff like that?  You just don't have any idea how busy we are, Hibbs.  I mean traveling all the time takes a lot out of you.  And when you are home, its just one meeting after another. 

HIbbs:  Well, did they contact you?

Dr. KingPin :  As I remember, vaguely, yes, some of his followers did contact us.  But, understand this, Hibbs, they were never part of our group; came up from out of nowhere.   I don't think you are going to believe this, but they never even came to our conferences!  Rumor was they claimed they knew more than we did.  Bunch of cowboys romping around all uncontrolled. Humph!

Hibbs:  mmmm.. ...Did you ever attend their conferences?  The ones in Brazil?  China?  Finland?  Elsewhere?  And, now that you remind me, didn't they hold a big round-the-world "voyage" once a year?  --- what is it ---World Leaning Day- held it several times if I remember right?  As I remember they were free, and, as you say, you could attend from your desktop. I'm sure as a leader of distance education you attended them.  What were your observations.

Dr KingPin:    Hibbs!  Have you forgotten?....I was Head of the DLW C!  You think I would go to a conference where I couldn't belly up to the bar? have some laughs with my friends?  Hibbs, what kind of person do you think I am?

Hibbs: Thank you, Dr. KingPin—


The fantasy ends when Hibbs calls over to Peter and says


            Peter, would you please come over here? There is something

            about this conversation that doesn't seem quite right. Before I let

            Dr. KingPin past the Gate, I think a little closer examination is in order.

            Would you please do the honors?