Anthony Pym

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On the Distance in Distance Learning

 

Anthony Pym 2000   
 
Paper written for a publication that has something to do with the Euroliterature project.  

  

My experience with distance learning began as an undergraduate in Australia way back in, let’s see... 1976 or thereabouts. I was working on a mine in the North-West, staring out into a desert, trying to remember what women looked like. There was time, there, to read slowly through the written lectures on “world drama” (anything to escape the drama-less world we knew). And there was something wondrous strange in listening to the tapes of slow Noh or Kabuki (can’t remember which), part of the course materials, that clanged so out-of-place in the flies and the heat and the red-iron dust. Wondrous not particularly because those sounds were apparently from Japan; they were more immediately from the university, from the city down south, from a place where people knew all about such things, could talk about them knowledgeably, could mix Calderón with Shakespeare, Marx with African rites, and make sense of it all, it seemed. If enriching, that first experience of distance learning aroused the desire to get rid of, precisely, the distance. I went to the university, entered the lectures and tutorials in situ, and was inevitably disappointed. 
 
As teachers, we do well to remember the hopes and illusions, the glimpses of transcendence or promesses du bonheur, that occasionally bring us students. Such is our fundamental stock in trade. If we cannot recreate those things, we have little chance of creating motivation, inspiration, enthusiasm; we condemn ourselves to the negations of those things. Distance, the physical distance in time and in space that is precisely the defining feature of distance teaching, can play a positive role in attaining such hopes and illusions. 
If we are to believe the experience of the desert, sometimes it might be better for the learner to be distanced from the instructor. Let us investigate this possibility. 
 
Some will say the classroom is always the ideal. Face-to-face contact, real-world exchange, is the only real reality. That is where we find the minute backchanneling and non-verbal language necessary for true understanding. That is where the learning community is ultimately created. Perhaps. Yet, as is frequently pointed out, even there we find distance, if only the external distance created by teachers and students as they travel between home and class. The first distance in learning is surely when students travel to meet teachers, and teachers to students. It is then that the time and space that separate us become the internal distances of the classroom, sublimated in the differences of generations, of dress codes, of formalized language or distributed wealth (the learning community may cross social classes or ethnic boundaries), of respect or its active negation. Teaching partly means using that internal distance in order to gain and maintain respect, authority, sometimes admiration, sometimes contempt.
 
There is thus both an external distance (teachers and students come to the space of the classroom) and an internal distance (they manifest differences within that space). These two kinds of distance are often related. In what might be considered a traditional classroom, especially in the humanities, teachers are the ones who have been to other places, other cultures, other languages other institutions, or at least other times (since they tend to be older). Learners are the ones who have covered less distance in life; they are more worried about the daily trip to school. If the teachers look and sound different, it is because their accumulated cultural distance has a material base. 
 
Now, imagine a situation where that simple division has been perturbed in various ways. 

Imagine, first, the enhanced mobility of students who move from culture to culture, language to language, perhaps the oldest kind of distance education (in the twelfth century the year abroad, exilium, was considered part of a good monastic education). When the result is a classroom of half home and half foreign students, as has been the case in some of my translation classes, the teacher’s cultural distance is automatically reduced. Authority becomes harder to maintain; teaching methods may change accordingly, perhaps more democratically, but we do not really know. In some cases it might even make sense to alter entire course programmes (on the case of translator training, see Pym 1992), but there, again, we reach the realms of creative experimentation. 

Imagine, now, the similar mobility attained by the use of virtual means. When each individual student, regardless of how far or close they are from school and teacher, has the capacity to navigate world-wide, as they say, what happens? In theory, the student may soon cover so much virtual cultural distance that any axiomatic advantage pertaining to the teacher is more or less lost. And this is precisely what happens in some cases. Consider, for example, the case of the English teacher who has spent a professional lifetime correcting obvious signs of decadence such as ‘informations’ (plural) and ‘depending of’ (instead of ‘on’). What is that teacher to do now when the student can access online corpora of English where both forms appear as part of apparently common usage? There was once a time when a stately bearing and the creaky voice of the Empire might have won authority for the correction. But when the student can move further and faster, via the Internet, exchange programmes or parents’ money, those means of deciding right from wrong are to remarkably little avail. Nor is this a problem just for a dying generation. When we technologize our classes to keep up with the world, integrating rather than questioning electronic mobility, we soon find that our students know more than us, or can give us the latest tips and versions. Thanks to the virtual conquest of distance, we are increasingly levelled out. This may be a good and bountiful thing. Yet surely it kills precisely the hopes and illusions once felt by a young Australian in the desert? 

Our demands on your imagination are not yet at an end. Let us now consider a third kind of distance, neither properly internal nor external, but the difference between these two: the cultural distance between the learning activity and the everyday life in which it is embedded. If, for example, we are using computer-based teaching for professionals who are using computers all day, this third kind of distance is very small: the learning environment is virtually the same as the work environment. When people are spending most of their working day looking at a computer screen, the last thing they want to do is start reading texts and doing exercises on a computer screen. On the other hand, someone who is engaged in face-to-face teamwork all day (a hotel receptionist, perhaps) would experience a far greater kind of distance when engaging in electronic learning. In this latter case, the student might find in the after-hours computer screen a place of solace, intellectual support, or personal expansion. Such alternatives would seem more operative than any essentialist ‘learning styles’, apparently borne by students from cradle to grave. 

The simple changing of environments may thus be enough to trigger the difference of education. And by extension, when we seek to teach electronically simply because everyone else seems to be working electronically, we may be shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot. It may well be the negation of the quotidian that enables education to attract and occasionally enthuse. 
 
The young man looking out into that desert had, it seems, the three kinds of distance in operation. The physical distance between learner and instructor; the corresponding hierarchical distance structuring the learning relation; and the extreme cultural distance between the learning space and the immediate living environment. 
 
That triple distance was obviously faced and conquered: the learner has become an instructor, of sorts. Was the trip worth the effort? 

Routine and its negation

We have been piecing together a kind of moral for the story: The time spent travelling is not necessarily ‘lost’, since the immediate conquest of material distance would well be a negative thing for the more humanist parts of the humanities. 

Does this mean that the greater the distance the better? Obviously not. We might recall the Vygotskian threshold, the ‘zone of proximal development’ where the learner is supposed to be kept in touch with just enough unknown elements to keep them motivated (and thus learning), and just enough known elements to enable them to understand without getting bored (and thus integrate the learnt into development). A simple theory applied: just far enough away to offer a glimpse of God, and yet close enough to keep us walking on the earth, in some kind of recognizable direction. 

In questions of transmission techniques, this means constantly playing with routines of contact. With each change, no matter in what sense, there is a creation of distance, at least in the third of our senses. And such distance may win us the space needed not just for learning and development, but for transcendence of the everyday. 

That is a simple enough lesson. Yet it implicitly undermines many of the questions we bring to distance education. For example, there need not be any profound search for what is necessarily the right way to teach this or that course, for this or that student body, with this or that transmission technique. It may simply suffice to use the range of available techniques, if and when convenient, and to change them if and when there is an excess of convenience. We have long known that distance courses require initial face-to-face contact; some of us have been discovering that face-to-face courses benefit greatly from admixtures of electronic contact. 

Final heresy: Against research funding

It is traditional in this sort of article to conclude that more has to be found out, that more research is needed, that further funding will thus forever be well and wisely invested. I do not think that is true. Better, I do not believe that distance education will be well served by public funding for research. Why not? 

Well, first, there is something disagreeable if not absurd about working on a topic while being observed by researchers who are not interested in that topic, as tends to happen. It is no fun to have experts peering over shoulders; it is even disheartening when those experts are formalist educationalists uninvolved in the content, who believe that the thing learnt is nought but a product of the mode of learning. Teaching means caring about what is being discussed, which can then be the only justification for find new ways for the discussion. If we want to teach literature, for example, it must firstly be with and for people who care about literature. 

Second (I am keeping the list short), there is something wasteful if not paradoxical in spending money on flights and hotels in order to meet face-to-face to discuss distance education. 

Third, the paperwork required for funding in Europe has now reached levels that are clearly counter-productive. More time is spent concocting proposals and fudging reports than is invested in actual experimentation. Far better to ‘just do it’, as the slogan goes. Further, the paperwork experts tend not to be the kind of intellectual involved in book-length reflections or stimulating oral debate; their virtues are more narrowly political. This means that the kind of prestige accrued by filling out forms and visiting bureaucrats does not necessarily correspond to the kind of prestige won in actual performance. And it is actual performance that we must ultimately use to attract and maintain students. When success is equated with subsidies, one tends to forget the rest. 

Fourth, the most valuable feedback is not from renewed project funding but from student enrolments. In Catalonia, where I teach, virtually all university departments find they are losing good students to the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Open University of Catalonia), which uses aggressive publicity to sell fairly sophisticated Internet-based teaching. The simple economics of attracting and keeping students is forcing us not only to integrate distance teaching ourselves, but also to make the most effective possible use of our traditional assets (notably physical classrooms, tenured staff, and close interaction with research). That is, we must learn to compete on both fronts at once, 

The measure of success here, and I suspect in most aspects of future education, will be commercial. When people willingly pay the full costs of education, receiving subsidies that they can then allocate as they wish, then will we know how to adjust distances to learning needs and styles. The winning models may well incorporate an active and reasoned hybridity.
 
References

Pym, Anthony. 1994. “Student Exchange Programmes and Translator Training: Three Economic Principles”, Perspectives. Studies in Translatology, 1994/1, 41-50.  
 

Last update 26 December 2000  
 

© Anthony Pym 2014
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