George Siemens (2008) suggests that distance education is growing in acceptance, fueled primarily by increased communication technology, a broader, global audience, and increased collaborative interaction between individuals. Siemens, most renowned for his theory of Connectivism, is approaching this topic from a very optimistic standpoint and while I generally agree with his assertion, I think we have a long way to go before distance education and traditional education are perceived as equal. Still, his point is well taken and if we deconstruct his reasoning, we begin to understand not only what is fueling the growth of distance education, but what we can expect to see evolve in the next few years. Let's look closely at one of the factors Siemens cites as contributing to acceptance.
Siemens (2008) suggests that the growing sophistication of communication technologies is expanding individual's level of comfort with distance education. Skype, instant messaging services, text messaging services, social networking applications, and video conferencing software are all examples of this type of technology and the list of available applications is growing exponentially day after day. The evolution of these technologies is really quite astounding. Email ten years ago, for example, was very limited, while the recently mothballed Google Wave at least demonstrated that what we think of today as email has evolved considerably. Similarly, discussion threads were "all the rage" in the 1990s but seem rather obsolete when compared to Wikis, blogs, and microblogs. Yet, is the sophistication or complexity of the technology truly what explains the growth and evolution of Internet usage and Distance Education? Or is it something specific about the type of sophistication that appears to be emerging?
Stephen Downes, one of my absolute favorite people in the world, suggests that the most transformative and successful communication technologies are those that allow people to express their individuality, creativity, and autonomy. The key word here is "express" and it is why advances in communication technology are having such an impact on the acceptance of distance education. Prior to applications like Skype, communication was very limited, both by the technology itself and people's understanding of how to manipulate it. So, the complexity of newer technologies in and of itself is not the source necessarily of growing use and acceptance; it’s the level and richness of the communication they allow and their ability to allow greater and deeper expression. So-called web 2.0 technologies are emerging specifically around this theme. Applications like Nozbe, Prezi, Digg, and Delicious integrate the social aspects into function, resulting in more collaborative, evocative opportunities for people to intertwine form and function to create new and innovative representations. In fact, there’s even a name for doing so…it’s called a mash-up and it’s perhaps the most purely creative digital genre on the web today.
Clearly, technologies are emerging that reduce the geographic distance between people and they are having an impact on the acceptance of distance education. But, as David Hopkins points out, physical distance is perhaps the least important component in education. Hopkins is more concerned with cognitive distance, social distance, and generational distance and he suggests that distance education has yet to address those issues adequately. I think it’s important to note that this is one area where distance education and traditional education may be equivalent. I’m not convinced that traditional education ever crossed the cognitive, social, or generational distance effectively on a large scale. As evidence I point to the large number of lecture-driven courses still active today. At any rate, I think it’s fair to say that distance education will only be able to stand on its own two feet when we begin to understand that distance in not purely a measure of physical space.
There is an interesting, yet obvious relationship between technological advancement and usage. While we could attempt to predict what the next innovative technology might be, it's really driven by usage, which is in turn driven by the need to express oneself. Thus, it's hard to predict what might be next. At the very least, we can say with some confidence that more advanced methods of expression are likely at the heart of these advances, particularly in communication technologies. Distance Education is no different. As we "play" in our sandboxes, innovators are paying attention to what we are doing and listening to what we wish we could do, and the next generation of applications they develop cycle through the process.
Siemens, G. (2008) The future of distance education, Laureate Education Incorporated.