A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants. A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is.(Lao Tzu, Ancient Chinese Philosopher, c 604 B.C.)
The Internet boils down to communication and information. As our society becomes more information-driven, the importance of the Internet increases.(Engst, 1995)
Since 1993, when the Internet became a widely used tool for communication and the exchange of information, so did the growing concern of educators and administrators alike on how to utilise this teaching medium. "It is the most explosive communication phenomena of the century" (Galbreath, 1997) and with such an exponential growth rate, many educational issues need to be tackled head-on. Such is the case with distance education. The following discussion will describe these issues and more specifically the pros and cons of this type of education.
Distance education utilises on-line communication. Hence, in order to discuss these terms, one must begin by defining on-line communication. I define on-line communication as any interaction and/or intraction taking place between one, two or more persons, using the Internet or one of its subsidiaries as medium. This takes into consideration the World Wide Web, email, videoconferencing, audioconferencing, newsgroups, and software like ICQ and FirstClass. There are several differences between face-to-face communication and on-line communication. Some are of the positive nature, others might be more of the negative nature.
It is being seen as a revolutionary educational tool that "will do for education and learning what the printing press did for society…cheaper, faster, better" (Kaufman, 1998). Like its predecessors the telephone, the television, the teaching machine and the overhead projector, the computer is next in the line of educational saviours. Their beliefs are the result of distance education’s many pros.
As one of its pros, distance education has allowed for persons involved in a discussion to have a grander distance between one another. Thus creating the possibility of access for all. Distance education allows for students in remote areas to have access to university courses. It also allows students who are unable to attend school, such as pregnant mothers and disabled people, to have the same opportunities as students that can be in the school, access for all (Roblyer, Edwards & Havriluk, 1997). Distance education is also cost efficient for universities as they end up having more students. In this case, distance education is beneficial for both the student and the institution.
On-line communication and distance education also allow for persons to share more than textual thoughts. It allows for the sharing of pictures, video, sound and more. It is a medium that when properly used will benefit many of the various types of learners (Phipps, 1997). All but one of Gardner’s seven intelligences are met using distance education. Only the kinaesthetic aspect of his theory is not reached in distance education. Therefore such teaching a medium can benefit many different types of learners without much added preparation or thought.
Another pro of distance education is its ability to allow learners with greater and faster thought processes a place in which their needs for a faster medium can be met. There is no need for turn taking in a distance education course. One can simply answer questions when ready to do so. This will also benefit the opposite type of learner; the learner that prefers taking more time to process information. In such a case, the learner can reply to a given question upon having given it a deeper reflection.
Though there are many benefits to on-line communication and therefore distance education, some experts believe that the Internet and distance education are experiencing the same "hype" as other forms of technology have in the past (Kaufman, 1998). Like its predecessors, one can also find cons to communicating on-line. The problem is that access for all does not necessarily express success for all.
On the negative side of distance education lies the fact that humans communicate on many more levels than simple verbal or textual communication. Since on-line communications mostly take place in a textual format (personal observation of EDUC 305, 1999), many learners’ needs are not being met. In contrast, within a regular classroom setting, one is also able to communicate through body language. On-line communication takes that aspect away from our voices. This issue will take away from those who do not have good textual voices. People who cannot write or cannot read critically will also have many difficulties communicating on-line. Understandably, this is considering distance education in a textual format, as is the case for EDUC 305. Obviously, there are other forms of distance education that run on other forms of media like television (Carleton University) and radio (Africa). If these forms are being used in conjunction with the textual format, therefore more students will find voices they understand. Since, depending on the extent of a student’s textual disability, one might not even have a distance education voice at all. For this reason, younger students anywhere before grade four, might show great difficulties being in such a learning environment. Once the novelty of the medium wares off, loss of motivation can prove to be a real problem.
What on-line communication also does, is take everything one says and puts it out of context. In doing so, it no longer has the same meaning as possibly intended by its author/speaker. Therefore the understanding we receive through distance education will be different than the understanding we receive is a regular classroom setting. Depending on the medium, it could be stated that understanding could actually be jeopardised by using a distance education classroom format. Understanding can only come if the message being transmitted can be contextualised by the message recipient. If the recipient cannot make meaning of the information, understanding the information will be impossible. Since distance education does not necessarily take into consideration the individual learner, this is a possibility for thisa form of education and consequently one of its cons. One could therefore state that distance education teaches to the mass, not the individual, and this goes against recent educational philosophies.
Needless to say, distance education seems to be the educational wave of the future today. The educational possibilities when using distance education properly are only bound by the instructor’s creativity and knowledge of the medium. Again, unless these are utilised, distance education will always be in the shadow of traditional education.
Engst, A. (1995). Making the Internet connection. MacUser, 11(5 May):66-73, p.68. Galbreath, J. (1997). The internet: Past, Present, Future. Educational Technology, 37(6), 39-45. Kaufman, R. (1998). The Internet as the ultimate technology and panacea. Educational Technology, 38(1), 63-64. Phipps, P. (1997). Multiple intelligences in the early childhood classroom. Columbus, Ohio: SRA McGraw-Hill. Roblyer, M.D., Edwards, J. & Havriluk, M.A. (1997). Integrating educational technology into teaching. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Ch. 9.BACK