An Unquestionably Positive Step Forward: Distance Education

Article excerpt

The idea that teaching and learning can successfully take place through electronic communication between teachers and students who are widely separated by space and time is a concept that has inspired both hope and dismay, as well as excitement and fear. In advanced industrial countries with high rates of literacy and school attendance and with abundant post-secondary educational opportunities, we find a burgeoning literature, most of which touts the "unlimited" possibilities of this "revolution" in education.

At the same time, distance education has its passionate critics, even in societies in which universal access to computer technology is an attainable goal. Far less controversy has attended the projections of the wide use of electronic means to bring educational materials to resource-deprived countries in the developing world. Indeed, a general assumption that distance education represents an unquestionably positive step forward has framed almost all discussions of the use of this technology in education.

However, while there is only limited critical literature focused on the developing countries that would be comparable to the broad critique of distance education that has emerged in North America, a careful analysis of the prospects for the application of electronic technology to education may show that many of the already identified shortcomings of distance education with respect to industrialized countries also apply, or indeed are likely to appear in even more dramatic forms in developing countries. Moreover, there is a significant range of concerns about its impact and effectiveness in developing countries that would not be an issue in wealthier countries.

Some of the potential benefits for distance learners in both developed and developing countries include the greater access to education that distance learning offers (above all to what is increasingly referred to as the "nontraditional student"), flexibility of scheduling, the possibility of proceeding at one's own pace, and the opportunity to study without having to travel, indeed without leaving home.

In addition, for institutions that manage to persuade or oblige instructors to "bring their course online", the opportunity to reach distance students holds out the hope of great savings in the construction of classroom buildings, student housing, parking lots and other physical infrastructure, as well as substantial potential savings in teachers' salaries.

The advantages of distance education for the developing world are framed in terms of less expensive computer technology and the increasing speed and capacity of computers in relationship to their cost. In the face of the pressure on developing countries to join the global information economy, distance education appears to provide the opportunity to train more people better and at lower cost. At the same time, it has some serious drawbacks, even in its application in advanced industrial countries. These include cost and capital intensivity, time constraints and other pressures on faculty, isolation of students from instructors and peers, instructors' enormous difficulty in adequately evaluating students they never meet face to face, and drop-out rates that are far higher than in classroom-based courses.

Many of these fundamental problems are reproduced when distance programmes are exported to developing countries. As is known, the social impact of technological change is difficult to predict or foresee and, oftentimes, far from improving the quality of life or expectations of the powerless and the poor, the application of technology functions in strange and unexpected ways to reinforce the worst problems of inequality. …