Confronting the River Styx
go to previous version
I am sympathetic with the points raised in
John Hibbs's article, "Distance Education Exam at the Pearly
Gates" (Hibbs, 2001).
Hibbs touches on more than the hypocrisy of distance education
professionals who refuse to hold distance education conferences
online; he points to academia's unwillingness in general to
revisit some of its cherished presumptions.
Hibbs's main point is that it is contradictory for distance educators to promote online learning but insist on face-to-face conferences. In my opinion, this is only the surface of a deeper issue that is lost in his presentation. It is not just that conferences are offered face-to-face, but that they are structured in such a way that face-to-face participation is the only possibility.
Consider the Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning, held in August at the University of Wisconsin. Of the 80 sessions conducted at the conference, only three were available on the World Wide Web, with an additional six links to authors' home pages. The only way to participate in this conference was to travel to Madison. The presentations were not provided online (though you can order video tapes for nine dollars per session), and the Web site has no online forum.
It's not that we don't know how to conduct an online conference. In 1995, with my colleague Jeff McLaughlin, I conducted an online workshop for the Canadian Association of Distance Education. McLaughlin and I also hosted a session with Diversity University that same year (Downes and McLaughlin, 1995), and as recently as November I participated in a lively online multimedia debate at Net*Working 2000, the Australian National Training Authority's third online conference. I have also participated in online conferences with the University of Maryland University College and Canadas The Node.
In addition, there is evidence that we are learning how to provide better online conferences and that they are getting easier to manage. As Shimabukuro (2000a) writes, "Most educators already have the minimum skills: they can read and send e-mail, and they can log on to a Web page and explore the site." Shimabukuro (2000b) also describes how online conferences are becoming more flexible and more interactive. There should be no barriers, then, to conference participation online.
Discrediting Online Discourse
Since barriers do exist, however, the only conclusion to be drawn is this: organizers could offer conferences online, but won't. To take the argument a step further, the problem is that distance education professionals at universities don't acknowledge the existence of online discourse. If an article has not appeared in print, it might as well not exist. To be considered sufficiently academic, an article on distance education must cite primarily, if not exclusively, print publications. Even using the word "available" in citations suggests that online presentation is an alternative and secondary mode of access. Hibbs could have (but unfortunately didn't) pointed out the irony of "major" works about online learning that do not cite a single online source.
Tony Bates's Managing Technological
Change is an example of a recent and important work in the
field of online learning. Bates lists only a couple of dozen URLs
as citations, and in the list of references, not one URL appears.
Are we to believe that Bates found no online sources worth
crediting? Articles appearing in academic journals are no better:
check the references of any paper and you may find one or two
URLs listed among dozens of printed works. And while some
journals (e.g., the Canadian
Journal of University Continuing Education) place their
articles online, most do not.
Do none of the academics publishing articles about online learning read DEOS-L or WWW-DEV? Do they derive no inspiration, no original ideas, from these online sources? If they do not, the credibility of the resultant articles should be questioned. But if they do, their granting credit to print sources only should be questioned.
Accessibility for All?
Hibbs also points out that despite its pretensions to the contrary, the academic world fails to address issues of accessibility and affordability. This failure is most clear when conference presentations are available only by attending the conference, at a cost of $3,000. This failure is less dramatic, but still clear, when academics publish their findings in expensive journals or books while providing only abstracts (or less) on the Internet.
It is revealing that courses offered by traditional institutions cost more when presented online, when in fact online technology reduces cost by an order of magnitude. And while academics may express concerns about the quality of online offerings, it would take a good deal of research to identify the pedagogical weakness in FreeEnglish's English as a Second Language course ($9.95 per month) or advanced computer training from SmartPlanet ($15.95 a month). Again, it seems universities could offer their courses for less, but wont.
The Corporate and Non-Corporate Worlds of Learning
Finally, I think Hibbs points to a large divide between the corporate and non-corporate worlds of learning. Traditional academics are not very interested in the non-academic world. People working outside this clique find this lack of interest frustrating, not simply because their work goes uncredited (academics rework the same material, publish it, and claim credit), but because important insights are overlooked by the academic world. It is hard to believe, for example, that academic writers would not be influenced by Tom Barron's (2000) "A Smarter Frankenstein: The Merging of E-Learning and Knowledge Management," for example, or Harvi Singh's (2000) "The convergence of e-learning and knowledge management," or even my own (Downes, 1998) "The Future of Online Learning," which discuss the convergence of learning and data management. Yet you would struggle to find references to these and similar publications in a book or academic journal.
The hypocrisy is this: while academics talk about online learning as inclusive and empowering, their practice remains exclusive and disempowering. In their conferences, courses, and publications we see no move toward a wider audience or a wider base of participation. Academics, long criticized for being an enclave in society, remain an enclave even in this connected world. In thirteen years in distance education I have watched academics' self-imposed isolation push them ever farther from the mainstream of online learning. I have been criticized for suggesting that traditional academia stands on the brink of an abyss. Hibbs's article suggests it has one foot in the water. Academics ought to take heed, for it is a long, uphill swim once you have been swept down the river.
Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning held at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Website. Retrieved 15 December, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.uwex.edu/disted/conference/.
Australian National Training Authority. Net*Working. Website. Available Retrieved 15 December, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://flexiblelearning.net.au/nw2000.
Barron, T. (2000, August). A Smarter Frankenstein: The Merging of E-Learning and Knowledge Management. Learning Circuits. Retrieved 15 December, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.learningcircuits.org/aug2000/barron.html.
Bates, T. (2000). Managing Technological Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education. Articles. Website. Retrieved 15 December, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.extension.usask.ca/cjuce/eng/artXauth.html.
Downes, S. (1998) The Future of Online Learning. Presented to NAWeb 98, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB. Retrieved 15 December, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.atl.ualberta.ca/downes/future/home.html.
Downes, S. and McLaughlin, J. (1995) MOO? No, this is a MAUD! Session Proceedings. Diversity University, 23 June, 1995. Retrieved 15 December, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.atl.ualberta.ca/downes/threads/du.htm.
FreeEnglish. Website. Retrieved 15 December, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.freeENGLISH.com/english/index.asp.
Hibbs, J. (2000, January/February). Distance Education Exam at the Pearly Gates. The Technology Source. Retrieved 15 December, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/commentary/2001-01.asp.
McLaughlin, J. Website. Retrieved 15 December, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.cariboo.bc.ca/ae/php/phil/mclaughl/home.htm.
Shimabukuro, J. (2000, January/February). What is an online conference? The Technology Source. Retrieved 18 December from the World Wide Web: http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/cases/2000-01.asp.
Shimabukuro, J. (2000, September/October). The Evolving Virtual Conference: Implications for Professional Networking. The Technology Source. Retrieved 18 December from the World Wide Web: http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/vision/2000-09.asp.
Singh, Harvi. (2000, December). The convergence of e-learning and knowledge management. E-Learning Magazine. Retrieved 15 December, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.elearningmag.com/issues/dec00/converge.htm
Smart Planet. Website. Retrieved 15 December, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.smartplanet.com/fp.asp?layout=new_home.
The Node. Website. Retrieved 15 December, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.node.on.ca.