I just spent a very enjoyable and learning packed three days at the 12th Bi-Annual Cambridge Distance Teaching and Learning Conference. My keynote went OK, and the other three were outstanding! A notable (and very welcomed) addition to the conference was the number of African attendances as well as others from Europe, North America and the US. The conference is quite small with daily “home groups” and everyone eating together at a Cambridge college, so it was a cozy event.

One of the contentious issues (as usual with distance educators) concerned the use of technology in delivery of distance education programming. This may seem strange to those new to the DE field as ALL distance education, by definition is mediated by some sort of technology (from postal service to SecondLife), but there is a real ideological split between those who advocate maximizing access and those more interested in maximizing learning effectiveness. I could hardly cast myself as a neutral player in this debate, as I’ve long been a proponent of exploiting the technologies when they offer learning advantage. However, the ‘other side’ seems to think that unless the technology is ubiquitous to at least 99.99999% of the population we shouldn’t use it. This thinking has a very strong and long tradition in DE – after all increasing access has been the defining feature of DE since its inception 150 years ago. The well respected researcher Ormond Simpson from the British Open University gave a presentation on the issue, claiming that a technology to be used had to meet four criteria – illustrating each using perhaps the world’s first use of pneumatic learning (blowing a balloon up with the lead letter inscribed in felt pen as he introduced each criteria). The criteria Simpson identified are Access, Reliability, Cost/Complexity, & Price. I noted that he had forgotten to add an e- in front (to be topical these days) and an Australian colleague noted that rearranging the lettered balloons then produced e-CRAP – but that was a distractor.

My point was that using machines (notably the Net in all its manifestations) provides tremendous gains in effectiveness in learning. It results in much faster composition, capacity to use and create multi-media, much larger sets of resources (many now becoming freely accessible), supports many forms of human communication (synchronous and asynchronous) and is now affordable and accessible by the vast majority of distance learners. I know that Ormond mentioned the thousands of net-restricted prisoners enrolled in DE programs and I know that there are learners on the trap lines in Northern Canada without even dial-up connectivity or electricity) but when are going to get over our hangup on accessibility, and realize that access is just one of the concerns of learners and educators? If we continue to focus exclusively on access, we will neglect improving productivity and effectiveness. After all using a pencil to inscribe characters in a learning sequence is much less accessible then scratching in the mud or on slate tablets, yet long ago we decided that pencils (or pen substitutes) were accessible enough to be required. We are now at the cusp where the same decision is needed for net access and learning. In fact, my colleague Rory McGreal always argues that we can’t really say we are providing a quality, 21st century education if we don’t require mastery of the most powerful learning tools available.

A second theme relates to the first and was best evidence by Ormond Simpson’s call for “evidence, evidence, evidence” (I know, you’re probably thinking this conference was just another episode of the Simpsons 🙂 . But his point is well taken and certainly too much of what we practice both online and F2F lacks evidence of effectiveness and as importantly of efficiency. Reflecting on this call for evidence makes me think of the famous “no significant difference” issue that has long characterized debate on education and especially education technology research. It is hard to demonstrate the effectiveness of todays’ improvements when the criteria of assessment is set by yesterday’s standards. I mean, are pencils really more cost effective and do they produce higher learning outcomes then slate tablets? – not to mention the ecological cost of all those pencil shavings in the air.

If we think of more general learning outcomes of education as a whole, the rationale for Net learning becomes more apparent. There have been a number of calls for reshaping and configuring what education is all about in the new millennium that talk about outcomes beyond the narrow limits of objects for each course. As example is the American Partnership for 21st Century Skills suggests the following:

1. Core Subjects and 21st Century Themes

One could argue that core subjects can be taught using any media, but increasingly the media itself is a major theme of many core subjects. Think fo trying to demonstrate the process of disentagling DNA snipets on the slate tablet

2. Learning and Innovation Skills

  • Creativity and Innovation Skills

    • these skills point to the need for creativity tools, and the creations on UTube bare evidence of the realively low costs production of some very creative and innovative productions
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving Skills
    • The global nature of the net throws into sharp relieve the mutliple perspectives and vast numbers of data sets in nearlly all disciplines that are needed to address many problems and to appreciate the necessity of multiple perspectives when thinking critically
  • Communication and Collaboration Skills
    • Global communication, not only with professionals but with parents, peers and professionals demonstrates the efficacy of Net-infused learning

3. Information, Media and Technology Skills

  • Information Literacy
  • Media Literacy
  • ICT Literacy

    It would seem for too self affirming to argue for the use of the net over slate tablets or books to become literate in any of the senses above!

4. Life and Career Skills

  • Flexibility & Adaptability
    • Learning to make decisions about how to use many of the tools sets available on the net and adapting to new constraints (not the least of which is distraction) creates flexible and adaptive learners
  • Initiative & Self-Direction
    • The old, self contained distance education package has long been criticized for inflexibility and prescriptive and teacher-centered designs. The Net allows learners to negotiate and thus take power and add self-direction to their learning adventures.
  • Social & Cross-Cultural Skills
    • The point was made earlier and though access across the digital divide remains, the cell phone connectivity in Africa, demonstrates that universal connectivity is not that many years away in ALL regions of the world
  • Productivity & Accountability
    • Can you imagine creating an essay (much less a thesis or multi-media presentation) today without a computer?
  • Leadership & Responsibility
    • Leadership is based on communications and the net affords communication in both F2F and distributed contexts in many ways superior to that provided by any previous technology (just ask the millions who own their own radio stations, none as pod cast tools).
    • Responsibility is a bit tougher, but an argument can be made that responsibility is based on thorough and accurate information, coupled with a will and means to effect right behaviour. Though not exclusive to Net mediated contexts, the Net provides a wealth of information and the type of critical debate that allows learners to find their own voice and consciense on the world stage.

The arguments above are not the type of evidence that proves that every student using the Net will outperform every student not using it on every learning outcome. But together, I hope they convince you (as they have myself) that net-infused learning provides such a compelling case for effectiveness that we can trade off the increasingly small loss of access that accompanies its use.