Revisiting Distance Education's Symphonic Legacy: Still Crazy after All These Years or, Getting Better (All the Time)

By Olcott, Don, Jr. | Distance Learning, March 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Revisiting Distance Education's Symphonic Legacy: Still Crazy after All These Years or, Getting Better (All the Time)


Olcott, Don, Jr., Distance Learning


As one ponders the evolution of distance education the past 2 decades, the Paul Simon and Beatles songs remind us vividly that distance education is still a confounding and contradictory enigma constructed within the symphonic dissonance of higher education where dreams and realities of competing interests often collide. The everchanging reservoir of literature defining what distance education was, is, and-most importantly-could be, appears to be at its most fragile point in years and in need of a renewed, focused, vision for the future.

That eminent scholar, Yogi Berra, has summed up the primary problem with this erratic, moving target definition game succinctly: "if you don't know where you're going, you'll wind up somewhere else." In essence, this has been the endemic and ubiquitous problem for distance education the past decade. Many passionate advocates argued that distance education, with a misguided emphasis on technology, would increase educational quality, reduce expenses, raise revenues, foster more interaction, enhance access, lower your golf score, give faculty time for contemplation and research, and educate children on the value of educational learning over video games. And it is true, some people have lowered their golf scores with technology and educational access has been enhanced. Our other aspirations, regrettably, have fallen well short of earlier advocacy and promises. Why? Because the field embraced unrealistic and unnecessary goals.

Why should technology have to demonstrate it is "better" than classroom instruction or that it can produce higher "increases" in learning outcomes? Technology, in and of itself, is simply a tool, no better or worse than any other teaching strategy or technique used by grade school teachers or university professors alike.

Why didn't we simply say that technology and distance learning might just make teaching and learning more enjoyable and fun with the same academic results? This is analogous today to academics denying the fact that students are "consumers" of education and that "convenience" is indeed a powerful motivating force for students in choosing alternative modes of learning. As the gatekeepers and creators of knowledge, the academy sometimes has a hard time with these subtle truths. Lesson 1: The use of educational technology must be defined by its value as a teaching and learning tool first and foremost.

The inherent reason for advocating these unattainable goals was economic investment, or more precisely, return on economic investment. If campuses made major capital expenditures for technology, then the results in the teaching and learning process had better exceed all measures of academic achievement, financial efficiencies, and instructional quality than the old ways. Of course, campuses built new football stadiums, remodeled gymnasiums, but never required undefeated seasons as the new measure of quality. Perhaps if we could sell tickets to alumni to attend history, philosophy, art, dance, and music classes, we would have avoided these contradictions.

Distance learning advocates got trapped by their own misguided rhetoric rather than arguing the merits of alternative approaches to teaching, learning, scheduling, and embracing the variety of learning styles among students. Lesson 2: The value of educational technology for teaching and learning must be measured by its capacity to enrich the teaching-learning environment rather than unrealistic expectations for producing revenue or reducing expenses.

Today, the result of this misguided approach has come back to haunt the field. A decade ago, distance education advocates argued simultaneously how different these teaching and learning processes were and yet how important that they should be mainstreamed into the core academic culture of the institution, a "separate but equal" philosophy. Most institutions weren't buying this argument because they conveniently bought a different philosophy, "separate but different. …

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