Higher Education

the "distributed" in distributed learning environments

I’m working on my article for On the Horizon on distributed learning environments, particularly a brief section address the term itself. It’s the notion of distribution and what it means that seems significant to me. DLE has a long history as a term, predating the net even as a replaced for "distance learning," as a term that emphasized more interactivity and perhaps a shift from the one-to-many broadcast model of early DL. However the term has taken on some different ideological overtones. There’s an association between distribution and decentralization, with decentralization suggesting an anti-authoritarian politics (as in Steve Levy’s Hacker Ethic). There is also the opposition of the DLE to the consolidated management of the corporate CMS.

Of course all this was going ’round in the latest business with "edupunk."  Personally, I always think it’s interesting when academics who would normally be anti-corporate and anti-administration at any opportunity come out swinging in support of Blackboard. Clearly many rank and file faculty have a lot invested in the faith that Blackboard is good.

In any case, for those who see distributed learning more in the hacker ethic/edupunk way, the idea of a corporate or campus-managed DLE makes no sense whatsoever. The point of having a DLE is that it isn’t managed by those entities.

For those who think about distributed learning the way Wal-mart thinks about a distributed supply chain, centralized management is relatively easy and obvious. In that case, no one cares or wants to know how the sausage is made, least of all the faculty. You can argue, as some do, that students will demand better user experiences. And maybe they will, but to be honest, they have grown up to recognize that school is boring and out of step. They aren’t surprised by the lameness of the CMS. And many aren’t nearly as web savvy as the media suggests.

The real challenges operate on another level anyway. Even if you incorporate a great wiki feature into your corporate CMS, will faculty really be able to adapt to an environment that works like a real wiki? Where students from across your department or maybe even around the world are collaborating on knowledge production? That’s just an obvious example.

But all this isn’t really the point. The real point is the learning has always already been distributed. Teach on a public wiki or in a CMS or have your students shut off their phones and laptops while you lecture, the students still learn through a distributed environment/network. You can try to ignore it, you can try to manage (part of) it, and/or you can participate in it. But first you need to get a grasp on how it works.

The worst case scenario you can probably imagine in relation to DLEs is for a college to try to restrict the use of the web to only the college-approved CMS. Of course this would be ridiculous, roughly akin to a college saying that profs could only order texts from one publisher. But even if you did this, students would still be out on the web, as would faculty. Still you can see how this idea might enter someone’s head.

I’m not worried about that eventuality. I do think though that issues like this one progress through communication and education. If you name the corporate cms or college admins as your enemy that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The reality is that it’s more likely you don’t really want these folks as enemies, you just want to massage your relationship with them.

That’s why I think the rhetorically effectively (and reasonably accurate) way of understanding the distributed network that shapes learning environments brings these entities into the picture, along with all those web 2.0 apps and mobile communication practices. The trick is help non-techies see that these practices don’t have to be scary.