Manifesto for Teaching Online – Aphorism No. 1- “Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit.”

I state right out that I am in no doubt that online is superior to previous forms of distance learning delivery – i.e. radio, land mail, telephone, television and video tape. This is largely because of its famous convergence, access and availability, of media forms, flexibility, sophistication. Where there is internet access there can be encoded, formalized forms of learning, and where there is a decent connection you can have video-conference with one or more people pretty easily.

With free access to course material and increasingly access for free, or semi-free – i.e. price of a coffee – there surely is no impediment but to sell all school and university property, ditch the libraries, chairs and textbooks, and instead give every student in the world a free iPAD, an office facility to arrange site visits to labs, workshops, offices and factories and furnish specialized apps taking you from elementary school through to Ph.D.. As of December, 60 million iPADs have been sold so why are we not picking up on refresher classes in Synthetic biology?

While they didn’t sell off school property the Uruguayan government gave all its young a free laptop, and other pundits of Negroponte’s One-Child-One-Laptop OLPC initiative are in no doubt that IT ownership and use is good for learning. more about it here.

I am sure an advocate for blended approaches as a teaching practioner. I hold that offline tutorial and project groups, and clearly lab or workshop sessions, are not only desirable but of course essential in many subjects, and certainly for personal and professional development. There is also the issue of cost. A recent contribution lends an unfolds the economics at play in how Apple’s plans to supplant educational orthodoxy has not been fully realised.

iPads vs. Textbooks

To all of the great attributes of the online experience is the defining ingredient, manifesting in the midst of the constellation of multimedia elements. Interactivity aims to orchestrate the message and purpose, content, in a more usable, fluid, fluent, compelling and engaging manner. This is a world of mash-ups, hashes, re-mixes, semiotic and identity plasticities and any other way which you wish to describe what is going on online and can attract attention and followers. Interfaces that let the user pull down what they want when they need it bound to intelligence somewhere in the system that can pitch and calibrate the right amount, right depth, relevance, right timing and complexity of data and information will help follow the envelope of the individual learners’ capacities as they move from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’ in the learning experience towards learning outcomes However, having used multimedia-based education aids with my children – the eldest approaching 20, the younger, still using them – approaching 7- I really do notice clear and obvious differences in the style and presentation and operation of the CD-ROM Macromedia style work of 20 years agowith what is avilible online today. But there are still monstrous deficiencies in how these multimedia CD-ROMS and the sites put things across, how they work and operate, and most probably aid learning..

How much of these changes over this time have proven mere aesthetics and how much are research driven and informed by emerging pedagogy and androgyny studies is anybody’s guess. You can still see the Ph.D.’s lining up in the credits, but you wonder how these thinkers get the very simplest things wrong. I tend to think they need interaction designers who kind of double as multimedia proofreaders and education researchers or any combination thereof. But they probably have this, in which case it is a design management problem. Designers must pay close attention to content boundaries and the types of knowledge to be learned to create multiple pathways of inquiry and self reflection. Learning technologies and attempts at online and digital learning have been around for a long time now, but like virtual reality they have simply not met their promise. Jonassen (1999) made a list of several design principles that could be used to develop what he termed the “constructivist learning environment.” These included: (a) Create real world environments that employ the context in which learning is relevant; (b) Focus on realistic approaches to solving real-world problems; (c) The instructor is a coach and analyzer of the strategies used to solve these problems; (d) Stress conceptual interrelatedness, provide multiple representations or perspectives on the content; (e) Instructional goals and objectives should be negotiated and not imposed; (f) Evaluation should serve as a self-analysis tool; (g) Provide tools and environments that help learners interpret the multiple perspectives of the world; and (h) Learning should be internally controlled and mediated by the learner (pp. 11-12).

Now, returning to the idea of distance, is it really a principle, or is it rather a simple matter of fact, a reality in phenomenological terms? I am no geographer and I am not sure. What I do know is that McLuhun’s global village still boasts great diversity and disparities between peoples in terms of accessibility, connectivity and accountability, certainly in terms of wealth and the everyday ways and means of its citizens. Certainly, what I can access in the internet is the same wherever I go, but different neighborhoods of this great vast village is still defined by significant geographic distance, climates, modes of communication, wealth between individuals and communities, and also, most significantly, this means differences in terms of what you can pick up at the market, or off the street, in the supermarket, delivered to your door as well as the quality of what you learn and how you learn in the school or university.

There has been no real postal service in the countries I have been living the last 10 years and hardly much of a landline system either, so email and mobile phone have been the rule with respect to communication and straddling distance. In matters of taking instruction from my masters, and translating them to my colleagues, I have used digital communications extensively in both teaching and in academic management, and of course in keeping in touch with communities of practice and thinking.

I also have shared my knowledge and understanding of Web 2.0 applications and their relevance to teaching with my staffs. My experience of running workshops was that they seemed and remained skeptical, some due to them preferring their traditional ways of teaching. Traditions, or rather more precisely, following traditional ways, are stronger and more resilient in some places in some cultures than they are in others. They are more persistent in some persons more than others. In large, they may expect to teach as they were taught, or as students, taught as they were taught before at school. They have perceptions and deeply seated beliefs regarding the school and university and what should happen therein. Shifting the onus of learning and its management to the learner is in very real way a foreign concept [as was ironically their dated colonial methods of traditional teaching]. Giving them tools that are to some extent blank slates, was a difficult prospect for those who were themselves used to spoon-feeding or being spoon-fed knowledge.

Of course their were exceptions, for instance the IT lecturers in my Web 2.0 workshops knew everything I was talking about… but a post-workshop follow-up showed me that they were as unlikely as any other subject teacher to exploit the obvious propensities of the web based tools to support teaching and learning [ironically I have noticed that a lot of EU funded web researchers have little of a web presence as well, they clearly like to profess of the web and all its marvelous propensities, but leave its uptake and use to the proletariat].

In Understanding Media< and elsewhere Marshall McLuhan made reference to the fact that electronic media extends human nervous systems over time and space. At the same time he drew our attention to the fact they also condition and shape, enable and constrain, all in particular ways, the message itself. You would imagine global reach is good for students in any place in the global village, for instance they can network and connect with those in other places, they can learn of other places, build learning networks, compare notes, lifestyles, and knowledge. But this is not what happens. Do a search on twitter for ‘Africa’ and you will see a multitude of NGO and other western based organizations aiming to level flat the world once and for all. They jostle and compete with each other for this privilege and of course the attention of the big donors. They are not simply ‘there’ – this is the distant place in need of help and expertise – except when their NGO or charity invest in a country representative and a local office. By then they would be on the big money. They are distant and their distance prevents them helping. Like the social design student entrepreneurs who dig a well and knock up a nifty looking shape of a school in an impoverished village, they do good for impoverished people, get in a great existential experience in a different culture, and finally a great web site replete with good photo opportunities from the project. Good for the C.V.

While we may accomplish a great deal from speaking on the telephone or via Skype, it will never lend the same intimacy, the same form of encounter, as direct face-to-face communication – or as when you visit poverty at close quarters. Even within electronic media, typologies have been made to illustrate what kind of connectivity we can expect. Cachia (2008) makes an attempt to differentiate Social Networking from traditional Internet apps and lists five characteristics that set them apart:

• authentic data about users and their friends can be visualized;
• users’ always-on,
• light-weight identity builds on weak links of acquaintance,
• common taste, activities and
• co-location.

The key words for me here are ‘weak links’, and ‘lightweight’ identities and ‘common tastes’. In a sense I take this to relate to what Zygmund Buuman terms ‘liquid love’, the lack of depth in modern consumer relationships to others, and to knowledge too. This is something that has been picked up upon recently by the likes of Nicholas Carr and Jaron Lanier. Carr is worried about our brains being dumbed down by the Internet. He sees that the tendency is for shallow understandings. Lanier the guru of Virtual Reality when it emerged as a promise or threat in the early 1990s pre-dating the graphical WWW, wonders if we are using the internet or if the internet is using us. This seems to point also to issues for online learning. Kevin Kelly also frames a similar question “What does technology want” – So can we extend this to ask: What does an online course want from me? By not delivering yourself body and soul over to the university and the physical, geographical and social experience, what do you miss? When you study development and aid, and the only experience you have of it is in a book, or on slides in lectures what do you know of it? Are you ready to go and work for Halliburton rebuilding Iraq? When you consider group dynamics, you can see the multitude of communication styles and realms of influence that people have over each other. This has been very well documented. Does the same dynamic happen online?

Distance means different things to different people; sometimes this is good – a surfeit? – and sometimes bad – a deficit?.

Pyschodynamically, distance is often seen as a loss, such as in people ‘distancing themselves’ from others [and objects] as a deliberate strategy of removing oneself from influence or even resisting influence and power in social circumstances. In the west we are distances by those groveling in the mud to fulfill the needs at the lower echelons of Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s tough in that part of the global village and it is important to use as a sounding board to frame these discussions and keep them grounded and real. It strikes me that the cult of personality and ‘me brand’ is up the top end of the hierarchy, the end where you have successfully got rid of smelly, dirty industry and picking potatoes by hand and put all you have at the mercy of financial services, their statistics and the arcane calculus of financial engineering. This resonates with the idea of a ‘professional distance’- an aloof, depersonalized persona which is cultivated by performances and social mores such as in the way experts and superior others portray themselves, and typically defined in terms such age, education, social class, money, ownership, knowledge, command of language and status – that is embodiment.

Conversely, distance from home, friends and family, such as a trip or relocation can prove challenging emotionally, as many people often prefer to spend time – that is, be close to – those who love and support them. The Samaritan design students who come to work on humanitarian projects in Africa or South east Asia miss their folks while they do their unselfish good things for the locals. They are invariably amazed at their resilience in the face of hardship; they long to be back at home with their creature comforts, and especially so when they are video conferencing on Facebook. The world is only a panopticon for some. And when they do finally return home, met by thankful parents, friends and family at the airport they are grateful in their heart of hearts that they and their loved ones were born into comfort and not the poverty they witnessed, they encountered. These are relative values, from people who have the power and freedom to peek into other realities and who have choices and can make judgments. But what are they actually seeing? [by the way I am using this as a metaphor for the distance between worlds of offline and online, I just love poverty and the western perspectives way (which of course includes my way) of handling it as a metaphor- for instance I am using it as I write this piece, but at least I have spent years in that ‘other’ place]. I apologise if I seem to verge on cynicism here, but I would rather they stayed for a semester or term, or even a sandwich style year, than 6 weeks.

A great deal in the literature in participative design research, consumer ethnography and user experience speaks of the need to ‘get closer’ to users and consumers in order to develop more relevant potentially successful devices, products and services. Maybe we should get closer to poverty, organic ways of living and non-consumerist lifestyle. Why is this? The reason is simply that all people know more than think as Micheal Polanyi informed us, and do more than they know they do. Only under critical analysis, including system-logging of responses and actions, are these things made clear, if they can be taken to mean anything at all.

Within this camp there is something of a perspective that distance constitutes a problem for design. That, first, designers often believe they understand their creations, like western designers know their global village, their technology or services, their online courses per se, so, so much better than users, subscribers, students and others including upline managers, investors and partners. They, and only they, have the professional training and awareness that users and others do not possess that permits and allows for this refined and privileged understanding. And that this privileged understanding actually makes them superior to others in a more general sense, in that they are the priesthood who knows the ‘real’ truth lying behind inadequacies that others buy like sheep, flaws in design that are glaringly obvious but not picked up on, flaws in human nature, flaws, real stories against edited and printed versions.

After all design is a creation, a creative process, its not meant to be a response other than the designers wider knowledge of the world, their influences and predilections, their knowledge and taste all drawn through intelligent selection from the wider world. How can people judge something that they haven’t been exposed to, experienced or have known, and probably never will (they are too busy watching ‘Idol’ or the glamour of ‘Dancing’?

Can a teacher, who has wide experience in a subject or process, really open themselves under such a purview, open themselves in anything like a measured Rogerian sense to the learning needs and processes of the student? Can they truly bracket their views and opinions regardless of how expert or professional they are seen to be? They are no better than the medical man who scoffs at the overweight smoker’s expected lifespan, or the politician who willfully passes untruths in order to win votes, or investment banks and others in financial services doing insider dealing and many other methods of bettering their own collective lot at the expense of clients and customers. In this case designers are like many teachers, they believe, and often their students do as well, that teachers know the field best, and certainly more than the students.

However, with respect to online being the privileged modus – if this in layman’s terms means that online is the best delivery mechanism for certain content, then this concords with McLuhan’s idea, that those designing and producing the course works, do so, and design so, on this meta level. That is, they are fully cogniscent with the possible ways in which the message is or can be ‘massaged’ and work contiguous with, or even using, this. For instance, the topic of computer programming is clearly in its element being learned on a computer, and by extension, so is PHP, XML, perl, ruby and various other online orientated languages. Other subjects like Maths and formal logic also lend themselves well to this mode of delivery, as can the alphabet and basic grammar and language [I used them all last year]. But in my mind, as stated above, you still need a teacher/facilitator to be there, an intelligent and sensitive, observant and understanding being – who can meta-think with respect to the subject and the individual student – who can enact tactics and issue prompts and additional questions aimed to evoke answers and problem solving, plug the shortfalls in the students interpretation of the online material and the subject, enhance their understanding of the fixed obdurable non-dynamic portions of the system. Put simply these are parts of the communication that are contextual but may not be addressed by a pop-up, a hypertext link or help. The human actors are also there, most importantly, to temper, mentor and motivate. Why would such a role be lesser given the role of mentors in the business community, and psychotherapists in helping cope with personal issues?

I had an unsatisfactory experience teaching on an online course in organizational behavior. However, I still saw value in bringing such a class to a physical university and having on hand a couple of teacher specialists, the first in English to help with language comprehension and to conduct workshops on academic writing, desk research, and presentation. Management is a wordy subject as are others; they were there to help in interpretation and to also focus upon process and method of handling the course. And the other teacher/councilor to advise on subject matter, to plug-gap what was not provided by the program, and to recite any material given by the online tutor and help establish research goals, essay topics, advise on substantive and course content matters.

This technique I have since translated to working on developing learning in young children. When were using a maths program with young children, they invariably seem to get worn down by the grind of what is, in actuality, a onslaught of mechanical arithmetic only slightly veiled in its repetitious operation by a cartoon themed interface. Of immediate note was that some kids seemed to take to the independent learning offered by the machine, i.e. they can and did focus, others simply didn’t have the attention span and had to be constantly guided and coerced back to the screen. This is something that a traditional teacher couldn’t or wouldn’t do in the educational context we were in, especially with class sizes of up to 30 kids (I had witnessed this first hand, a teacher head bowed mechanically reciting the Alphabet as if she was reciting a Buddhist mantra while the kids at the back of the class were running riot, learning how to run riot at school).

In our class, with reduced and more realistic numbers, the teachers were on hand to answer questions, of either a language nature [some question were English ‘word’ maths question in language that I would consider sophisticated for a 6 year old], and some of a procedural nature [it just wouldn’t be possible to put kids on this site without instruction as they didn’t show you how to do the sums]. And so a teacher or facilitator was still required to work on two levels: First, monitoring and motivating the kids as they went about their work, making sure they understood what was being required of them, and lending examples, as many as need be, on how to tackle problems, and second, keeping them engaged and motivated. Imagine there was an online or hard drive facility that offered examples; you may have a child simply pressing unlimited examples and not even watching them. It reminds me of the misnomer that just because the television was in a house, and switched on, that the audience was actually watching it, and taking it in.

Many multiple choice style presentations are a double edged sword. They may allow a child to try and see, to experiment in order to get the right configuration, but without gratification in the form of encouragement or praise, they can also highlight the arbitrary nature of this seemingly meaningless and endless act of button pressing, addition, multiplication, subtraction and division.

This included getting them to express the answer in a different manner, i.e. different ways to express the answers to the sums, copying and answering on pen and paper, or playing a game where they answer making the outline of the number on the teachers arm. We were led to the tentative conclusion that the kids were simply worn out by the repetition of working – reading, working out and answering – a machine. It was production line style work. That is, pressing answers on a keyboard.

Now I risk gross generalization. I would say that this is one of the problems, which is essentially not necessarily a cognitive problem, but one of language, interface and interaction, hinders this form of online learning. It beggars other questions like, do we need to teach penmanship at all, given that there is a good chance that all communication the child will be writing in adult life will probably be online. Do we teach them to read real books?

Incidentally we have worked on other interactional methods which involves the kids actually running around physically doing maths and learning basic system theory in various, physical, learning games. Tackling problems from different perspective, and different modes of reception and expressing answers in different ways, would not only suit advocates of the Howard Gardner school of multiple intelligences, but also makes for a more engaging and fun way of learning for the child. It breaks down the idea of play, reality and learning, as it also should online. This is something they love doing and is also reaping rewards – this is embodied teaching which I believe is encouraging deep learning. I can imagine incorporating ICTs into such activities rather in the manner of the dancing pad application which aimed to make couch-potatoes kids more active on their playstations, or online competitions with other kids elsewhere. There is really just not enough work on this stuff of novel interfaces. I would welcome anybody out there that can point me in the right direction.

Many tasks for formative level children – and adults – largely require brute repetition and memorization, and this is good for machine delivery, although as I allude above in practice that I have found many holes in content, interface usability and aesthetics, particularly working with young kids and adults in an overseas context. I feel that most of these resources (of which I pay for) could be vastly improved.

I can imagine creative disciplines such as film and media studies, online journalism, even literature and philosophy can be done online and social science methods which have migrated online for the purposes of social and behavioral research. I am sure all these could be very well delivered online. But I would certainly not appreciate having surgery performed by someone with a pure-play online medical qualification, and this leads to the problem herein: when you start to teach practical subjects. In Harry Collins’ critique of AI, the fundamental limits to what AI can achieve are placed against an understanding of socialisation (Collins, 1990). He revisits and builds on Dreyfus’s earlier critiques in which he indicated that proper computer intelligence would never be arrived at due to the machines not being embodied. Collins and Evans gave rise to a term which they call interactional expertise which is where a researcher may even get to the point where they can answer questions about plumbing or physics as though he or she were a real plumber or physicist even though they can not do plumbing or physics.

This interactional expertise (what the researcher has) differs from contributory expertise (what the plumbers and physicists have). Of course, plumbers and physicists who can talk fluently about their work will have both kinds of expertise. This is a fundamental of experiential Learning (i.e. Kolb) where there is an emphasis on learning by doing (then reflecting and theorizing). It is just not possible to train someone online to act and react in a social setting or context. If it is the placing of icons on a screen, or the submission of words to a blog, then online will suffice, but there is still so much we do and need which is not found online, such as vegetables and meat. It may sound base but would we know how to purify water, convert electricity via an invertors and entertain ourselves as our ancestors did, if for some reasons the markets totally collapsed – that is, without being able to Google these things? We can learn to be social online, but can we learn to be social offline, online? [Jame’s Burke’s first series of ‘Connections‘ (1978) was the best depiction of this scenario for me, really scary, quite factual].

To treat the social purely as theory (aka, Baudrillard’s famous ‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place’- a commentary largely on how we are perceptually desensitized to the actual vicissitudes of war through overdoing on coverage), and believing all you see on television is factual and unbiased, just because it is what is available, accessible, familiar and common. Media researchers have pointed to the way in which a constant bombardment of virtual and televisual images of war and deprivation from far away places desensitizes us after each view. They have become normal news, like strife in Israel, natural disaster, or as late, financial crisis. I have about a thousand of my ex-students and colleagues on Facebook but how many can I remember wholeheartedly? Do we have strong links or weak social links? Dreyfus (2001) discusses distance learning he sees a connection between trust and embodied presence. To trust someone is to make yourself vulnerable to him or her. Dreyfus states, “I have to be in the same room with someone and know they could physically hurt me or publicly humiliate me and observe that they do not do so, in order to feel I can trust them and make myself vulnerable to them in other ways” (p. 71). The feeling of trust thus influences our mode of being-in-the-world.

Also, when the chat screen comes up, then another and another how long is it before we descend into a routine, and I start to gravitate towards a faq, a pre-forma reply or macro? The globalization of products and media has thrown up the specter of corporate media and the homogenisation of culture. Some critics have also pointed to the way in which media grinds down to the lowest common denominator, as shown with the obsession with celebrity and their dilemmas and controversies command trends in search engine hits. A quick glance on Yahoo right now has no less than six female celebrities in the top 10 of trends, the other items being engagement rings, Euromillions lottery, and Fibre optic broadband and a mobile phone. Deeply fascinating stuff, only marginally though compared with Dancing with the stars or American Idol.

Online dating is not real dating. Chatting via SMS has its limits, as does online chat. Defining these limits, using these limits, designing for these limits, testing these limits is what is what is surely important.. If you walk across to the management school at Edinburgh – or decent Management schools elsewhere – you will invariably see that there are several break-out rooms where students work on group projects and simulated board meetings – they do this, face-to-face. Management is typically a social practice at large, although of course, while there has been the rapid rise of the virtual corporation and the like, I would venture that the majority of management situations prevailing round the world today are still of the wetware variety – embodied people, acting in the same space, with other embodied people, typically on concrete situated projects to do with agribusiness or manufactories. While managing some forms of business is perfectly conceivable online, many others rely entirely on people being in the same place at the same time. It would be proper for people to have experience with both, and even to experiment and personally appraise what they see as the advantages or disadvantages as they mix or match, but online, for better or worse, will never change the fact that is it an addition to, an embellishment of, based upon (and I am here pre-empting the next aphorism coming up) an extension of real embodied experiences.. This reflective aspect – the process and method of what happened – should be the crux of every course, every experience, online and offline.

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