for a publication that has something to do with the Euroliterature
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
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.
a situation where that simple division has been perturbed
in various ways.
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.
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?
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
That triple distance
was obviously faced and conquered: the learner has become
an instructor, of sorts. Was the trip worth the effort?
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
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
1994. “Student Exchange Programmes and Translator Training:
Three Economic Principles”, Perspectives. Studies in Translatology,
- Last update
26 December 2000