August 14, 2018

Education across space and time: Distance Education, Vol. 34, No.2

Distance education in Australia

Distance education in Australia

This special edition of the Australian-based Distance Education journal presents a selection of papers originally submitted to the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia’s 2013 summit meeting. The themes that the issue attempts to address are as follows:

  • How can we foster engaging and interactive learning with a dispersed and diverse population of students? 
  • How can we shift towards a learner-centred paradigm when institutional practices and physical infrastructures are geared towards teacher-centred delivery modes?
  • How can we enable the social and connected features of technology, when LMSs can be restrictive and clumsy…?

Sims, R. and Kigotho, M. (2013) Education across space and time: meeting the diverse needs of the distance learner:

This editorial sets the context and provides a brief description of each of the papers in the edition.

Hockridge, D. (2013) Challenges for educators using distance and online education to prepare students for relational professions

Relational professions are those which require ‘personal skills and a level of maturity.‘ This paper describes research that investigated educators’ concerns about distance and online education in Australian theological institutions. The paper in particular looks at ‘formation’, or character development, so the findings are more widely relevant than just theology. Her conclusion is well worth summarizing:

…it is overly simplistic to conclude that formational learning cannot occur in distance and online modes. Formational learning is complex and not easy to achieve regardless of the mode of study….a more productive way forward…is to be more intentional about the ways in which formation is addressed whether on campus, distance or online.

Earl, K. (2013) Student views on short-text assignment formats in fully online courses.

Short-text assignments restrict the word counts to 800 words or less. (Bit like a blog.) The study addressed two questions: how do students rate short-text assignments? How do students rate feedback provided by short text assignments? Conclusions:

assessment is more than a summative check of student knowledge and skills; it is an experience and part of the communication, and therefore relationship, between teachers and students. Short-text assignments are rated highly by students not because of a shorter word count but because students appreciated the variety and creativity aspects to these assignments. 

Note that the study was on one class of 21 students taught by the researcher.

Watson, S. (2013) Tentatively exploring the learning potentialities of postgraduate distance learners’ interactions with other people in their life contexts

Little consideration seems to have been given to the possibility that distance learners may be interacting with other people in their life contexts about their studies in a way that is making a positive contribution to their studies. The study involved semi-structured interviews of 15 Australian post-graduate students studying at a distance. Although the findings suggest that students vary widely in the extent to which they interact with others outside their course for study purposes, when they do interact, they produce identifiable learning benefits. Watson identified five types of life context interactions:

  • gathering information for assignments
  • getting help with difficult content
  • discussing the application of content to real-world contexts
  • sharing knowledge with others
  • getting feedback on assignment drafts

Watson suggests two course design implications from her studies so far:

  • encourage learners to talk to appropriate colleagues, friends or family about the application of particular theories in practice
  • encourage the establishment of mentoring relationships between learners and appropriate industry personnel

Higgins, K. and Harreveld, R. (2013) Professional development and the university casual academic: integration and support strategies for distance education

Casual academics are university instructors who are not entitled to either paid holiday leave or sick leave (such as, presumably, adjuncts and contract instructors in North America). In this study, twelve casual academics who taught distance education courses discussed their work through an in-depth semi-structured interview. The interviews revealed that these instructors managed their own professional development informally, and were sometimes unaware of the formal professional development activities available to them from the university.

Murphy, A. (2103) Open educational practices in higher education: institutional adoption and challenges

In this study, 110 individuals from higher education institutions in 29 countries participated in a survey aimed at identifying the extent to which HE institutions are currently implementing OERs and practices. The sample was focused on people with an interest in OERs; half the participants were from UK.

Main findings:

  • 23% were in organizations actively involved in the OERu network – 
  • 88% ‘knowledgeable’ about OERs
  • 29% were in institutions that were actively publishing OERs
  • the adoption of OERs and practices is still in its infancy
  • additional support such as funding and dedicated human resources are needed

Yasmin (2013) Application of the classification tree model in predicting learner dropout behaviour in open and distance learning

This study compares pre-enrollment student data with student attrition/drop-out for 12,000 post-graduate distance education students admitted to the University of North Bengal, India. The study indicated that married, employed, older, or remotely located students were more likely to drop out.

Note that the study used mainly demographic data, rather than data based on previous academic performance or the influence of factors during courses.

The paper’s main value is that it provides an analysis of drop-out factors for distance education students in a developing country, complementing the vast array of similar studies in developed countries.

Todhunter, B. (2013) LOL – limitations of online learning – are we selling the open and distance education message short?

This article questions the terminology being used to promote an institution’s programs. The author is particularly concerned that focusing on the term ‘online learning’ does a disservice to the special aspects of open and distance education. He argues it is necessary to pay close attention to the different needs of off-campus or distance learners, which can be lost in a discussion of the merits of online versus campus education. But above all, Todhunter is concerned that a focus on ‘online learning’ will put off many who are potential learners, whereas the terms ‘open’ and ‘distance’ will not only be be more appealing to some students, but may require different policies and strategies than a focus on ‘online’ learning.

Students embarking on graduate theses involving online learning, e-learning, distance education or open learning will benefit from reading this article when it comes to clearly defining what they are researching.


First, an explanation of why I have taken the time to ‘abstract’ these papers. This is not an ‘open access’ journal; you require a subscription from Taylor and Francis Group publications at nearly $40 an article. So pray that you have access to a good library, or you need to be sure that the article will be worth it to you. I have complained several times to Distance Education about a journal on open and distance education not being open access, but this is the policy of ODLAA (the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia).

Second, some of the individual articles are well worth reading, depending on your interest. From reading the journal I picked up the following points (these are my interpretations, not necessarily the author’s):

  • good pedagogy is more important than mode of delivery (Hockridge) – further evidence for my law of equal substitution (i.e. most of what applies to good teaching in classrooms also applies to online education, and vice versa. Most things that can be taught in class can also be taught online, so we need to focus on the exceptions, not the rule.)
  • we need to do far more research and development on online assessment methods (Earl)
  • we are underusing learners’ life experiences in the design of distance courses (especially important for adult learners) (Watson)
  • institutions need better policies for casual/adjunct/contract instructors, and need to pay particular attention to professional development for this increasingly important human resource in higher education (Higgins and Harreveld)
  • even amongst the supporters of OERs, actual use, and especially secondary use, of OERs is still minimal (Murphy) – how long does maturation have to take?
  • studies of drop-out that focus on the demographics of incoming students are pretty useless. These are your students: find ways to help them succeed – don’t screen them out just because they are a higher risk, especially if you are an open institution (Yasmin)
  • open and distance learning are not necessarily the same as online learning; institutions need to be clear about markets and values as well as about mode of delivery. (Todhunter)

However, I do feel for journal editors who have to try to pick the best papers and at the same time try to find a common theme. The theme and the questions set out for this edition are only partly addressed in these papers, but nevertheless the articles are well worth reading. It’s just a pity they are so inaccessible.

Are we right to fear computers in education – or in life?

In this post, I’m going to look at some fun fiction about computers, then raise some questions about whether our fears are rational, or whether we really do need to question much more closely our addiction to technology, especially in education. This is not so much focused on specific new developments such as MOOCs (see: My Summer Paranoia) but on what it is reasonable to expect computers to do in education, and what we should not be trying to do with them.

Computers in film and print

There was an interesting article in the Globe and Mail on October 20 about IBM’s super computer, WATSON, being used to ‘help conquer business world challenges.’ Dr. Eric Brown of IBM actually described how WATSON was being used to help with medical diagnosis, or what he called ‘clinical-decision support,’ and how this approach could be extended to other areas in business, such as call-centre support, or financial services to identify ‘problems’ where large amounts of data need to be crunched (did he mean derivatives?)

Just after reading the article, I accidently came across an old 1970 movie on TVO last night, called, ‘Colossus: the Forbin Project‘. It was based upon the 1966 novel Colossus, by Dennis Feltham Jones, about a massive American defense computer, named Colossus, becoming sentient and deciding to assume control of the world. It does not have a good ending (at least for mankind’s freedom).

Colossus was the name given to the first large electronic computer, used to break the German Enigma code in the Second World War. It was located at Bletchley Park, England, not far from where the Open University's headquarters are located.

The date of the movie is interesting, made at the height of the Cold War, but when challenged by the power of in fact two supercomputers (Colossus in the USA and Guardian in the Soviet Union) which decide to communicate with each other and combine their power, the Americans and the Communists come together to fight – unsuccessfully – the mutual threats from the computers, suggesting there is more in common across humanity than there is between humanity and machines.

Of course, this movie came two years after Stanley Kubrik’s masterful 2001: A Space Odyssey, where HAL, the spaceship’s computer, begins to malfunction, kills nearly all the crew, and is finally shut down by the last remaining crew member, Dave Bowman. So we now have a score: humans 1, computers 1.

Then there is my personal favourite, the Matrix (1999). The film depicts a future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually a simulated reality or cyberspace created by sentient machines to pacify and subdue the human population, while their bodies’ heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source. Upon learning this, computer programmer “Neo” is drawn into a rebellion against the machines, involving other people who have been freed from the “dream world” and into reality. I put this one down to a draw, since there have been two sequels and the battle continues.

Lastly, a new film is coming out in March, 2013, based on Orson Scott Carson’s wonderful book ‘Ender’s Game‘, first published in 1985 and slightly updated in 1991. (If you have teenage boys, this is a must for a Christmas present, especially if they generally hate reading). In preparation for an anticipated third invasion from an insectoid alien species, an international fleet maintains a school to find and train future fleet commanders. The world’s most talented children, including the novel’s protagonist, Ender Wiggin, are taken at a very young age to a training center known as the Battle School. There, teachers train them in the arts of war through increasingly difficult games including ones undertaken in zero gravity in the Battle Room where Ender’s tactical genius is revealed. Again, the book explores the intersection between virtuality and reality.

Computers: promise and reality

It is interesting to look at these old science fiction movies and novels and today’s computer world, and see where progress has been made, and where it hasn’t. Colossus in some ways anticipated the Internet, as the two computers searched for ‘pathways’ through which to communicate with each other. We certainly have much more remote surveillance, especially in the United Kingdom, where almost every public space is now under video surveillance, and where increasingly governments are exerting more monitoring over the Internet, both for protecting individual freedoms, such as monitoring sexual exploitation of minors, and for more insidious purposes, such as industrial and political espionage. Claims have been made that 2011: Space Oduyssey predicted the iPad. Ender’s Game comes very close to representing the complexity and depth of many computer games today, and conspiracy theorists will tell you that the first moon landing was filmed in Hollywood, so close do movies come to presenting fiction as reality.

However, despite Watson and distributed computing, many of the developments in this early science fiction have proved to be much more difficult to implement. In particular, although all these early movies assumed voice recognition, we are still a long way from having the fluency depicted in these movies, even after more than 40 years of research and development. For instance, try communicating with WestJet’s or Telus’s automated answering systems (and in WestJet’s case, it frequently fails to recognize the spoken language of even native English speakers – such as myself!) These ‘voice recognition’ systems manage simple algorithmic decisions (yes or no; options  1-5) but cannot deal with anything that is not predictable, which is often the very reason why you need to communicate with these organizations. In addition to the difficulties of voice recognition, these systems are clearly designed by computer specialists who do not take into account how humans behave, or the reasons they are likely to use the phone to communicate, rather than the Internet.

As Dr. Eric Brown of IBM admits, ‘When you try to create computer systems that can understand natural language, given all the nuance and ambiguity, it becomes a very significant problem.’ As he rightly says, human language is often implicit and tacit, using signs and meanings which humans have learned to almost automatically and most times correctly interpret, but which are very difficult for computers to interpret. Indeed, in recent years, more progress seems to have been made on face recognition than voice recognition, no doubt driven by security concerns.

Face recognition has made more progress than voice recognition

The biggest challenge though that computers face is in the field of artificial intelligence, and in particular how humans think and make decisions. As already noted, computers can handle algorithms very well, but this is a comparatively small component of human decision-making. Humans tend to be inductive or intuitive thinkers, rather than deductive or algorithmic thinkers. Computers tend to operate in absolute terms. If part of the algorithm fails, then the computer is likely to crash. Humans however are more qualitative and probabilistic in their thinking. They handle ambiguity better, are willing to make decisions on less than perfect information, and continue to operate even though they may be wrong in their thinking or actions – they tend to be much more self-correcting than computers.

Can we and should we?

This raises two important questions:

  • will it be possible to design machines that can think like humans?
  • And more importantly, if we can do this, should we?

These questions have particular significance for education, because as Dr. Brown of IBM said, ‘to build these kinds of systems you actually need to leverage learning, automatic learning and machine learning in a variety of ways.’

At the moment, even though WATSON, the world’s largest computer, can beat experts at chess, can outperform humans in memory games such as Jeopardy, and can support certain kinds of decision-making, such as medical diagnosis, it still struggles with non-algorithmic thinking. One human brain has many more nodes and networks than the largest computers today. According to Dharmendra Modha, director of cognitive computing at the IBM Almaden Research Center:

We have no computers today that can begin to approach the awesome power of the human mind. A computer comparable to the human brain would need to be able to perform more than 38 thousand trillion operations per second and hold about 3,584 terabytes of memory. (IBM’s BlueGene supercomputer, one of the worlds’ most powerful, has a computational capability of 92 trillion operations per second and 8 terabytes of storage.)

However, research and development in psychology probably will lead to developments in artificial intelligence that will enable very powerful computers, probably using networked distributed computing, to eventually outperform humans in more intuitive and less certain forms of thinking. Dr. Modha went on to predict that we’ll be able to simulate the workings of the brain by 2018. I’m not so sure. If we still haven’t satisfactorily cracked voice recognition after 40 years, it may take a little more than six years to tackle intuitive thinking. Nevertheless, I do believe eventually it will be possible to replicate in machines much of what is now performed by human brains. The issue then becomes whether this is practical or cost-efficient, compared with using humans for similar tasks, who in turn often have to be educated or trained at high cost to do these activities well.

Answering the second question – whether we should replace human thinking with computers – though is much more difficult. Machines have been replacing human activity since at least the Renaissance. The printing press put a lot of monks out of business. So won’t computers start making teachers redundant?

This assumes though that teaching and learning is purely about logic and reasoning. If only it were. So much of learning requires understanding of emotion and feelings, the ability of students to relate to their teachers and their fellow students, and above all, is about fostering, developing and supporting values, especially freedom, security, and well-being. Indeed, even some computer scientists such as Dr. Brown argue that computers are most valuable when they are used to support rather than replace human activities: ‘It’s technology to help humans do their jobs better, faster, more effectively, more efficiently‘. And, as in films such as Colossus and the Matrix, it’s about computers supporting humanity, not the other way round.

The implications for teaching and learning

Thus my belief (how will a computer handle that?) is that computers are wonderful tools for supporting teaching and learning, and as cognitive and computer scientists become more knowledgeable, computers will increase in value in meeting this purpose as time goes on, . However it means that these scientists need to work collaboratively, and more importantly as equals, with teachers and indeed learners, to ensure that computers are used in ways that respect not only the complexity of teaching and learning, but also the value systems that underpin a liberal education.

And it is here that I have the most concerns. There is, especially in the United States of America, a growing ideology that considers teachers to be ineffective or redundant and which seeks means to replace teachers with computers. Coursera-style MOOCs are just one example. Multiple-choice testing and open educational resources in the format of iTunes and OpenCourseWare are other examples.Once it’s ‘up there’, there are some who believe that the recorded lecture is the ‘teacher.’ It is not: it is a transmitter of content, which is not the same as a teacher.

Another concern for us, as humans, is to be continually aware of the difference between virtuality and reality. This is not to criticize the use of virtual reality for teaching, but it is to ensure that learners understand the significance of their actions when they transfer skills from a virtual to a real world, and to be able to distinguish which world they are in. This is not yet a major problem because virtual reality is disappointingly under-used in education, but it is increasingly a feature of the lives of young people. This sensitivity to the difference between virtuality and reality will become an increasingly important life skill, as we begin to merge them, for instance in the remote control of robot welders in pipelines. It’s important to know the difference between training (virtual reality) and life, when a mistake can lead to an explosion or an oil leak, which has very real consequences.

Lastly, I also have some concerns about the ‘open culture’ of web 2.0. In general, as readers will know, I am a great supporter of web 2.0 tools in education, and of open access in particular. However, this does not apply to all web 2.0 tools, or all ways in which they are used. Jared Lanier, one of the founders of virtual reality, says:

 “I know quite a few people … who are proud to say that they have accumulated thousands of friends on Facebook. Obviously, this statement can only be true if the idea of friendship is reduced.

Also, while in general Lanier supports the use of crowd sourcing and the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ that underlies moves towards cMOOCs and Siemen’s theory of connectivism, he criticizes:

the odd lack of curiosity about the limits of crowd wisdom. This is an indication of the faith-based motivations behind such schemes. Numerous projects have looked at how to improve specific markets and other crowd wisdom systems, but too few projects have framed the question in more general terms or tested general hypotheses about how crowd systems work.’

None of these concerns undermine my belief that computers, when used appropriately, can and do bring enormous benefits to teaching and learning. We shouldn’t anthropomorphize computers (they don’t like it) but, as I learned from ‘Downton Abbey’, like all good servants, they need to know their place.


1. Do you believe that ‘we’ll be able to simulate the workings of the brain by 2018’? I’d like to hear from brain scientists if they agree – too often what’s reported in science is not what the majority of scientists think.

2. If we could ‘simulate the workings of the brain’, what impact would it have on teaching and learning?

3. Do you believe that there is a desire in some countries to replace teachers with computers? Do you see Coursera and xMOOCs as part of this conspiracy?

4. Do you think I am being irrational in my concerns about computers in teaching?

Further reading

HAL 9000 (2012) Wikipedia

Houpt, S. (2012) IBM hones Watson the supercomputer’s skills to help conquer business world challenges The Globe and Mail, October 20

Lanier, J. (2010) You Are Not a Gadget New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Orson Scott Card (1994) Ender’s Game New York: Tor

Colossus: The Forbin Project 

New journal on e-portfolios

an e-portfolio

Virginia Tech’s Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research (CIDER – not to be mistaken with the much more famous Canadian Institute of Distance Education Research at Athabasca University) has established a new International Journal of ePortfolio.

The first issue will be published during the summer of 2011.

For further information on the journal see:

Batson, T. and Watson, C.E. (2011) The Student Portfolio is the New Book: New Practices, Profession, and Scholarship Campus Technology, February 2