12.0468 distance education

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Mon, 1 Mar 1999 22:21:01 +0000 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 468.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Mon, 01 Mar 1999 22:17:17 +0000
From: Wendell Piez <wapiez@mulberrytech.com>
Subject: Re: 12.0449 WebCT; distance learning

> Regarding the response of Wendell Piez, I can only ask what is "real
> learning?"

Dan Price effectively points to the weakness (which is not to say,
quite, the hole) in my argument. The question is well put. Please
forgive the length of the response (it's three or four screens).

To reflect, I think I tried to indicate something about "real learning"
by saying it "seems always to be personal and social." I also tried to
suggest, notwithstanding my provocativeness, that the distinction
between "distance learning" and the "real" kind is not absolute. People
do learn at a distance; we are wonderfully capable of assimilating
information presented to us in mediated forms, whether it be print,
video, the web, or a lecture class of 300+ students, when we have a
context to assimilate it into. (The etymology of the word "assimilate"
is suggestive.) Whether all learning in some way is an effort to bridge
a distance is itself worth pondering (and has been pondered -- I am
trying to remember my Plato).

Yet in my case at least, learning at a distance has been enabled only by
an education received off line. In particular, I do not know how I would
go about learning at a distance if I had not already been helped to
develop a capacity to criticize my own thinking and my own work. In some
ways, and with difficulty, I have learned to resist first impulses -- to
reject out of hand what came to me, when it did not match prior
commitments or preconceptions. Some students, maybe, come to school
already able to do this -- they are the blessed ones. Most of us have to
learn it, and are lucky if we have that chance. Maybe this is the "real
learning" I am talking about.

This meant internalizing, to some degree, the attentions of teachers,
editors, classmates and critics who provided me the service of tearing
down my fine architectures of the moment, whatever air-castles they were
-- reducing all my arguments and analogies to scrap and rubble -- and
then helping me to build them up again, fairer and more functional. This
is difficult work, humbling, sometimes devastating: for me, persevering
in it only seemed possible because I was encouraged to come back to
every ruin, shown that the work of rebuilding was worth it -- because I
was not alone in it, because my critics were really with me, and
because, gradually through repetition of this exercise, it became clear
what the immense benefits were for all of us, and that we could help one
another in it.

I am quite at a loss to imagine how such encouragement could have been
provided through narrower channels than face-to-face. I do know from
first hand how thrilling e-mail, or the web, or MOO can be. Yet the
electronic thrills usually happen when we find interlocutors who (we are
surprised to find) already agree with us: many-to-many media can often
serve to reassure us that we have more in common with others than we
thought; I also know they can sometimes serve to sneak us past
artificial barriers that can get in the way in "rl" (real life -- and
note that in the parlance of vr -- "virtual reality" -- the term "rl" is
often used ironically). But it is when others do not agree with us, when
commonalities are not apparent, that the real work begins.

I am imagining there to be layers or levels of learning: the more
superficial or incidental ones can be pursued at a distance via media
technologies (even while those technologies remain the primary subject);
the deeper, more fundamental and far-reaching lessons seem to require
closeness, the broad bandwidth of face-to-face, its possibilities for
ironies, reversals, mutual recognitions. Maybe the most fundamental
lessons cannot be related from teacher to student in any case, but must
be learned by trial-and-error, and taught, if at all, only by example.

Perhaps Dan Price (or other advocates) could comment on how, in the best
distance learning programs, such work of negotiating across differences
is pursued. How do these programs address, endorse, reward and cultivate
the combination of critical faculties with a commitment to larger,
broader, more open attitudes, making room for expanding, consolidating,
more responsive notions of "good" and "true"? Note that this can be a
delicate matter, hard enough to do in the rl classroom, since compelling
students to be politically correct and give lip-service to "diversity,"
is hardly the way to encourage understanding.

I am sure that the specialists have given thought to this problem. Or is
"distance learning" based on an entirely different model of "education"
from what I have tried to outline -- am I making wrong assumptions about
its aims?

Best regards,
Wendell Piez

Wendell Piez mailto:wapiez@mulberrytech.com
Mulberry Technologies, Inc. http://www.mulberrytech.com
17 West Jefferson Street Direct Phone: 301/315-9635
Suite 207 Phone: 301/315-9631
Rockville, MD 20850 Fax: 301/315-8285
Mulberry Technologies: A Consultancy Specializing in SGML and XML

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