distributed learning environments

Following up on Charles’ questions, I wanted to delve further into this term. In a way it’s an old term. You can find people using it more than a decade ago in reference to online education. Here’s a definition from 1995 in Syllabus (via):

Distributed learning is not just a new term to

  replace the other ‘DL,’ distance learning. Rather, it comes from
  the concept of distributed resources. Distributed learning is
  an instructional model that allows instructor, students, and
  content to be located in different, noncentralized locations
  so that instruction and learning occur independent of time and
  place. The distributed learning model can be used in combination
  with traditional classroom-based courses, with traditional distance
  learning courses, or it can be used to create wholly virtual
  classrooms.

Indeed, one can go back further than this, but the point is that the term historically referenced the erasure of distance and the asynchronous quality of what is now conventional online learning. However, my sense is that more recently the term has come to distinguish a set of practices and values from those of the conventional, walled garden CMS (e.g. Blackboard). The term also bears some relationship to personal learning environments, though they aren’t identical as PLEs might operate within a single, customizable system.

In the call to which I responded for On the Horizon the definition of distributed learning environments is left quite open, though from my non-techie perspective, they fall into two categories:

  • flexible learning management systems (LMS): this is a more institutional perspective where admins and programmers develop institutional systems that have the flexibility to incorporate external tools and apps by adopting certain standards (e.g. publishing external RSS feeds as a simple example)
  • non-institutional processes: a more faculty-centric model where one puts together multiple SaaS sites (software as a service) and perhaps joins them in a PLE, but basically all outside the university.

I mostly do the latter. Not b/c I’m anti-institutional, though the idea that one would be pro-institutional just seems weird to me. But the point is that I don’t do it b/c I’m against the institution. I follow this model b/c the institution isn’t capable of supporting most of my activities. And honestly I don’t need their support. I think that support would just add layers of bureaucracy onto my job. However, I do see drawbacks in the difficulty of creating some consistency of experience for students. I’m not exactly sure how important that consistency is, but it might be nice if they could continue to build upon the work they do. For example, if they are asked to blog in several courses, it doesn’t make much sense that they create separate blogs or use separate platforms.

That kind of orchestration or management is what we’ve always asked the institution to do. But I’m not sure higher education is up to the task. Everything moves too quickly for them. But that’s a subject for a different day. However I do think it points to a way this two approaches come together.

I also have my own take on "distributed learning environments" that combines the following:

  • the SaaS/PLE model described above
  • distributed cognition (as a replacement for the "personal" in PLE)
  • actor-network theory (to broaden the concept of the distributed environment beyond the strictly technical)

So distributed cognition and ANT supply us with ways of understanding how thinking and learning occur, as well as the roles various "actors" perform: subjects, technologies, institutions, businesses, laws, policies, etc. From this perspective, the problem at the root of the PLE is easy enough to understand and can be articulated in one word: wiki. How are you going to curate a wiki page? In what way is that page "personal"? But that’s only an obvious example. Say you upload a video. In what sense is the string of binary digits personal? In a legal sense, certainly. And that’s an example of how this actor-network functions. But we ought to know that the composition of this computer file is not a personal (and in "individual") act. Instead it is a technocultural activity.

(Yes, one could say this about any composition, using any technology, even if it is "only" speech. But we have always neatly elided this reality in our fantasies of authorship.)

Anyway, my point is that by seeing distributed learning environments in this way, we might make better decisions about how to proceed institutionally, or at least understand better why institutions continue to struggle with technology on every level.

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