Thursday 6 June 2013

Keeping the d in distance learning

Boulton, Watt and Murdoch under a Brummie moon
The Ed Tech Team at University of Birmingham wanted to make a presentation at the 10th annual conference, teaching and learning at University of Birmingham touching on current issues in teaching practice.  It's hard to avoid the rise and rise of MOOCs and the shift in education many believe they will bring.  We haven't yet made any big investment into MOOCs, but not a day goes by without the suggestion that maybe we should be.  I'm not intending to write solely about MOOCs - there's no shortage of material out there should you want to find out more, but look at the broader school of 'distance learning' of which MOOC is a family member, and something we've been doing rather well in Birmingham for some time.

I am refering to the wonderful Lunar men of the late 18th century, who met at every full moon, usually at Soho House, but mainly shared their thoughts via mail.  When I worked in Birmingham Archives and Heritage, I had the privilege of working with the Boulton and Watt Collection.  One day I was flicking through Watt's letters when I came across the very letter he sent to Priestley suggesting Joe might be onto something with his "dephlogisticated air" (Oxygen).  It even appears they were conducting 'distance experimentation' :

The Lunar Society believed in argument and cooperation. They had long discussions about why thunder rumbles and decided the best way to test their various theories was by experiment. Boulton made a 5-foot-diameter balloon from varnished paper, and they filled it with a terrifying mixture of air and hydrogen (“inflammable air from iron”). They lit a fuse underneath, released the balloon into the night sky on a calm, clear evening and waited for the bang. Unfortunately, the fuse was rather long, and they all assumed it must have gone out; so they began to talk among themselves, when there was a colossal explosion, and they all said, “There it goes!” and forgot to listen for the rumble! Watt was at home 3 miles away and wrote that the bang was “instantaneous, and lasted about one second.” This seems self-contradictory, but in any case, the experiment failed to produce a simple answer to the original question.

Adam Hart-Davis

Starting with historical perspective, it was interesting to note the Oxford English Dictionary has not yet cited any published use of the term d-Learning, dLearning, dlearning or the other variants.  There is plenty in OED and others on e-Learning, but somehow d-learning has been missed.

Defining e-Learning, the e stands for 'electronic', of course, but there has been lively discussion about what it should stand for, or even if, in the proliferation of e-Learning across learning, mainstream, whether it is useful as a term anymore at all.  Some of the suggestions:

electronic, enterprise, exciting, energetic, enthusiastic, emotional, extended, excellent, and educational,

everything, everyone, engaging, easy - Erik Parks

You could also question if there is still a need to define separately d-Learning, but if we are, I would argue the d in d-Learning needs to be discussion.  There are challenges to learning from a distance.  We need to play to the strengths of modern digital learning networks, and actively promote and value the contributions and learning of our students and our staff.

I found the lack of literature defining d-learning rather curious, even though it seems in common currency in Education establishments, and so looked to how the big MOOC and other distance learners are defining themselves.  I looked at Open University, Harvard university, Massey, Coursera and some of the other big MOOC and distance learning providers.  The variation in how they defined their distance learning was striking - all included 'discussion' as an important element - for some it was central, for others it seemed mentioned more as an additional extra.

Changes in MOOC definition on wikipedia have also been noted and discussed as the MOOC providers appear to move away from the professional network 'connectivism' model of MOOC in a bid to find and promote the most eminent Professors to provide resources, represent their courses and displace peer-to-peer discussion and open access.  Such has been the shift that a separate 'connectivist MOOC' sub-group is now defined in Wiki, based largely on what is seen as a more 'purist' interpretation of the principles all MOOCS were founded.

Distance Learning and MOOCs are increasingly being debated within Ed Tech groups like the Association for Learning Technology (ALT), within our own University, across Education Establishments  across the world, and creeping nearer our newspaper front pages.  If discussion in d-Learning is kept central to MOOCS and all distance learning, I believe new technolgies could still provide a shift in learning and learning establishments to engage and meet the needs of more students worldwide.

Useful links:


  1. Thanks for this Marcus, a really interesting post. I like the idea of the 'd' standing for 'discussion'. Does this exclude some still valuable forms of distance learning however that can be solitary?

  2. I think you are touching on the philosophical poser, '"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?' - If learning has happened, how do we know if it has never been applied? A 'real' application, rather than a simulation, usually requires some form of interaction between the learner and at least another.

    Or perhaps good old Blooms Taxonomy expresses better. I'd like to see learners moving up from the lower (Remembering, understanding) to higher levels (analysing, creating), and for that to happen, again, interaction (be it verbal discussion or other forms of exchange).

    What kind of solitary distance learning are you thinking about?

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  4. Great post Marcus. If we're going to be idealistic (and why wouldn't we be?), where a student is situated physically should be irrelevant: they should have the same opportunities for interaction, application and challenging in a virtual classroom as in a physical one. Maybe we just haven't figured out the best way to do this yet.

    Given the push to increase student numbers and reduce overhads, what we're calling distance learning may well soon become the norm (with students appearing on campus only to sit exams and graduate). In which case, the 'd' might end up standing for 'default'!

    1. Thanks Stuart - Yes, interestingly enough wikipedia has 'elearning', 'mlearning' and 'MOOC' but still no 'dlearning' - am tempted to add it, but maybe it's best left as one of those terms that may never properly make it into popular diction.

    2. Have updated 'Distance Education' on Wikipedia (created April this year) to include dLearning, MOOCs etc. Wikipedia is great!

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