Is Distance Dead – In Education?

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By Ananya S Guha

Reflecting on education today especially in the Indian context one is actually amazed at the sea changes that have taken place or are taking place. One is of course the advent and increasing popularity of Distance and Open education, which addresses problems like one time failure, discontinuity of studies, education for adults, training and being upgraded in one`s work place and alternating work and studies. In fact the world of work and the world of learning are very intricately and intimately connected, today.

Let me look at my generation. I did my higher studies in the 1970s and the 1980s. For a person to be doing graduation or post graduation in his or her thirties was opprobrium, meant to be laughed at cynically. Today it is an honour, in fact the older you are in pursuing any form of studies the more recognizable is. This reversal of attitudes and the attitudinal change inherent in such actions or intrepidity gets rid of the former animadversion of studying at an older age.

Distance Education has made this possible for inclusive education even for the differently abled such as the visually or hearing impaired. Mind you Distance Education is not only studying at the classic `distance` but integrates the new with the old, integrating in its features not only study texts, technology but also such modes of learning with direct classroom teaching, in the process extending the classical class room.

The class room is multiplied by the use of study texts, audio visuals, tele-learning, the internet and face to face interaction. This is a clever use of tradition and modernity, as the average learner suffers from `class room` hangover. Secondly a positive and welcome sign is that the degree `bias` is gradually being attenuated. This has been done by introducing short term certificate, awareness or diploma programmes. Open Universities have contributed in no small measure, in order to subvert convention and prototypes.

Thirdly there is a threat to education:  its commodification. Distance Education Institutions can charge exorbitant fees and these are a threat to quality education, or even if there is quality there can be limited accessibility. The economics of distance education rests on sustaining costs, by making them cost effective by doing away with recurring costs and remaining with one time costs, and minimum recurring costs at the same time reaching out to as large numbers of learners as possible.

Fourthly the innovative paradigm shift in education is the use of the web, the internet which simulates a class room and makes it conventional teaching. Yet it is also distance education – so once again, the old and the new are combined in refreshing ways.

Yet is distance dead? I am not sure. Maybe it is half dead! I wouldn`t like to repeat Negroponte`s hype. I end on such a facetious note, but not without the conviction of the exciting challenges and possibilities of education today.

The emergence of online education and e-learning have attenuated distances and narrowed the gap between the teachers and taught in cyber space. However, the question is whether the personalized touch of classroom teaching or course material in Distance Education prepared in a personalized and student friendly manner can still be substituted by only online learning which can be impersonal and stoic. Cyber teaching of course has its advantages of covering global spaces and making teaching both synchronous and asynchronous, that is teaching and learning at the same time as well as out of it. For example, if the teacher communicates with the student by email then such communication can touch borders of friendliness and be more students centric. The point is that teaching and learning are taking more sophisticated forms and those who are tech literate or better still tech savy stand to greater advantages. But the four walls of a classroom are always sacrosanct and even an e-learning there is an attempt to simulate a classroom so that students still have illusions that they are physically present in one! Distance Education however, at its best and finest is blended learning where both traditional and non traditional pedagogies are combined judiciously and effectively.

If we are to go to the maxim that distance is dead in education then we are only thinking of web based learning which is not accessible to all in a country like India. No matter how much we talk about such technology based learning and how ‘easy’ it is the grinding fact is that factors like electricity, power supply and even the limitations of service providers are harsh realities. The isolated learner is the learner who has been cut off from studying for a long period of time, maybe because of economic and social factors, maybe also because of dropping out at some point in time. Again, the isolated learner is the one who stays in remote areas geographically and physically insulated from the larger world around him or her.

Distance then can be reduced by technology but ‘killing’ it in third world contexts, why even for that matter in developing nations where learners or prospective learners can still feel isolated because of inaccessibility to higher education, seems a remote impossibility.

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