Trying to connect

Kay Souter

Distance education was once a specialized field where carefully prepared coursework was sent out to far-off students who for all sorts of complex reasons — isolation, illness, family or business commitments — could not participate in the traditional on-campus experience. With its readiness to welcome non-standard learners and to make allowance for individual needs, distance ed has made a distinguished contribution to the democratization of higher education. It has its downside — the elaborately prepared materials are hard to retire, and course turn-around time in slow — but it is a big success story.

Only problem is, our current students are all turning into distance learners. Few students are 'full-time' in the way the boomers fondly remember, with long afternoons to socialize, study or chew over new ideas. Many students are working 20 or 30 hour a week. And not just for the frills either: a 2006 report into student poverty at La Trobe University found that 39 per cent of students didn't eat breakfast due to financial hardship. With Universities traditionally set up to have students soak up the collegial experience in person, this general busyness impoverishes the student experience. How can educators help?

We need to find ways to provide the buttressing of informal interaction.

People learn best from other people, and by talking through what they have learnt. Without this unstructured interaction, formal tutorials are unlikely to be enough to help the deep learning that talk can foster. I have recently attended the 12th Cambridge Conference on Online and Distance learning where some argued, myself included, that one answer to this twenty-first century problem, can be found in twenty-first century leisure phenomena, in the connectivity of Web 2.0 and social software.

This technology — from Facebook and Myspace, to asynchronous chat, blogs and wikis, and virtual worlds like Second Life — can function as an adjunct to formal teaching, so that students can interact with each other with some of the speed, fun, transactional closeness and warmth beloved of digital natives.

This isn't to suggest that we have to pop formal lectures into Facebook or schedule tutorials in Second Life — though some heroic souls are doing just that-anymore than we would necessarily give a lecture in the bar (though in my younger days I did that too). It's rather to say that Web 2.0 and social networking can provide a virtual pub for time-pressed students faced with lengthy commutes and unfriendly bosses. Asynchronous chat in particular offers that precious sense of social presence with no inconvenience, as anyone who has opened an email will know.

In Cambridge last week, Terry Anderson of Canada's Distance University, Athabasca, quoted Robert Frost's schmaltzy lines to make this point:

'Men work together,' I told him from the heart,
Whether they work together or apart'

Schmaltzy they may be, but it's true. Asynchronous communication has always underpinned learning — reading along-dead author's words, looking at a painting. E networking is our latest resource.