Distance Education - An Open Question
(Adelaide, September 11th - 13th, 2000)

Conference Report

Hosted by the University of South Australia, this conference focused on distance learning issues in the university sector around the world. From a TAFE SA perspective it was heartening to see that we by and large are well ahead of the university sector in understanding the impact of new learning technologies, and how best to apply them. Mark Hallam and Deb Bennett's session on 'Growing an Online Organisation' stood out not only for their grasp of issues and content, but also for what the conference newsletter called a 'pacy presentation'.

Keynote speaker Nigel Paine, well known to South Australian audiences, delivered his usual version of 'the Notting Hill view of online education,' as he inspired and challenged those present. Challenging the university sector in particular he suggested that if universities fail to move forward with the new technologies, then we as a society are in trouble. He highlighted an increasing inherent tension between educational institutions and society. Where institutions tend to be closed, orderly, and vertically structured, society is increasingly more open, chaotic, and horizontal in structure.

The nature of the Internet means all sorts of connections can be made between knowledge points that were hitherto unconnected. We have all had the experience of using the Net to seek out some specific information and ending up in a place that we had no intention of visiting. The Internet joins those knowledge points with just a few mouse clicks. This interconnectedness of knowledge can be rhizomic in nature, and it is challenging the linear approach to knowledge building that characterised much of traditional education till now.

Other points of interest from Nigel Paine's presentation:

  • There is a contradiction at play in the fact that you can be physically anywhere but still be connected to a specific community via the Net.
  • Quoting Brian Cardwell from the University of Melbourne he suggested that "systematic abandonment should precede systematic innovation." - the point being that it may be better to create entirely new structures and approaches for the world of new education rather than try and modify the existing structures.
  • Quoting Goethe, he suggested that in the new online media it will be "the feminine in us that will take us forward". It is acknowledged that it is women who are the more effective communicators amongst us, and the key to success in the online environment is effective communication through the use of interactive tools.
  • The notion of me.com, or me PTY.LTD. The Web has given individuals a platform to publicize their wares. One of the ways this is manifesting itself in the world of education is through freelance instructors offering their services online (already widely used by the University of Phoenix). You too can be your own online education facilitator.

(Nigel Paine's presentation available from conference website - http://www.com.unisa.edu.au/cccc/speakers.htm)

Professor Abdul Khan (Vice Chancellor, Indira Gandhi National Open University)

Traditional Hindu mythology represents facets of human existence with a pantheon of hundreds of gods. Traditionally there was a god of knowledge and a goddess of wealth. In the year 2000, knowledge is wealth.

Some statistics:

  • In the developed world more than 30% have some form of tertiary education
  • There has been an increase in India in online distance learning of 27% in the last 12 months
  • Less than 1% of developing countries have access to the new technologies (inequality and lack of access was a recurring theme throughout this conference)
  • 50% of humanity has never made a phone call
  • 77% of existing online courses emanate from the US
  • 96% of existing online courses are in English

And from Gbolagade Adekanmi (Centre for Continuing Education, Botswana):

  • 99% of the world's children go to primary school
  • 58% of the world's children go to secondary school
  • figures for Africa are way below these global averages

Easily the most impressive of local presentations were those from Paula Roberts and Ruth Geer. Both from the Magill campus of the University of South Australia, Paula's presentation was on Ethical Dilemmas in Researching Online Communities. It is now common knowledge to many that people on the Internet do seem to be able to quite quickly get close to others (witness the number of marriages and affairs stemming from online meetings). Her research shows that people do have a tendency to use the Net for purposes of self-disclosure and can leave themselves quite vulnerable. Consequently, researchers and lecturers have a responsibility to treat this kind of information shared in trust with great care. It is proposed to run a course at the Magill campus next year on Internet Ethics. (A great and timely idea in my opinion. Some people still seem to consider ignoring email to be acceptable, where they would never ignore a phone message.)

Taking up this theme from another perspective, Ruth Geer argued that although meaningful communication is necessary to enable an online course to be effective this communication should not become too personal. Online courses do however need a built in social component if students are later expected to work collaboratively. (I'm reminded of the analogy of the chance travelling companion. You can meet someone when you're travelling and spend a few days with them because there is the mutual desire for companionship. While you may enjoy being with that person for a few days you both know that you will not go on being friends when you go your different ways. Perhaps the bonds formed in online courses are similar - you meet and interact for the duration of the course but when the course is over you go your separate ways.) Ruth Geer's was an excellent presentation and I recommend her paper - Social Interdependence in Collaborative Interactivity in an Internet Based Learning Environment.

Professor E. Sam Cox (University of Missouri)
Key Facilitation Skills for Effective Online Discussion Groups: Herding Cats Through Piccadilly Circus

This was one of the more valuable presentations of this conference. Content of this session stemmed from a research project on good practice in online group processes. The following checklist summarises the findings of the research. I don't agree with all the points listed but they are more than a useful starting point in analysing how online group dynamics may be encouraged and managed.

  • Acknowledge dynamism
  • The tutor should assume the role of knowledge creator, not knowledge giver.
  • The online tutor needs to develop the skill of weaving online dialogues. (Much has been written about the skills needed by online facilitators, and this seems an appropriate verb for this process.) A weaving tutor encourages interplay of ideas and does not just summarise discussions. This encourages greater depth of discussion and leads to higher order thinking.
  • Be a facilitator not moderator. (Moderator role assumes some sense of control.)
  • Discourage face to face meetings if you want to encourage the development of a true online community. (I disagree with this. More and more online courses are in fact building in a compulsory on campus component.)
  • Pass on some of the facilitator's role to students
  • Welcome off topic conversations (see point made by Ruth Geer above)
  • Advocate single topic messages in bulletin board/discussion areas
  • Respect non-contributors. Avoid the negative term 'lurkers'. Use something like 'actil' instead. (Actil = active listener.)
  • Assessment must be linked to interdependence. That is, ensure that course work is collaborative, and assessed as a group achievement. Minimise fragmentation - don't have too many groups

(see article on Facilitating Online Learning for more on this topic)

- Michael Coghlan (26/9/00)