Schrage: Don't think of distance learning as just automation

Schrage: Don't think of distance learning as just automation

Madison, Wis. — Distance learning is about more than just doing the usual lessons away from a physical classroom, says Michael Schrage. Rather, technology is a medium that opens up whole new questions about what is taught, how it is taught, and what the relationship should be between teachers, students and the information itself.
Schrage, a research associate at MIT Media Lab and co-director of the Lab’s E-Markets Initiative, addressed the recent Distance Teaching and Learning Conference in Madison on the choices presented by distance learning. He opened his speech with a reference to the Five-Minute University, an old Saturday Night Live skit about a university that summed up in five minutes everything a college graduate would remember five years later.
“I think it’s ironic and perverse that the joke is still funny 25 years later,” Schrage told the audience. “But if it will make you feel any better, if we hold the long distance learning community up to those standards, you guys are doing great.”

Automation vs. augmentation

A key question, Schrage said, was to reassess exactly what the goal of distance learning is: is it to automate tasks — doing the same things as before only electronically? Or is to augment — to use the technology in a new way? And is the focus on the teachers, or the students?
Automation and simple conversion of older content to the online medium might be the easiest first step, but Schrage also described such practices as the lazy man’s way out. While many teachers would appreciate automated grading and online distribution of lecture notes, things that few would argue with, Schrage also argued there are greater steps to be taken.
One example Schrage gave involved the increasing use of instant messaging between young people. What if teachers could set up an official study chat room, monitor it and even compile FAQ guides from it, increasing the interactivity between students and enhancing their relationship with the material?
Another example Schrage gave of augmenting learning was simulations and video game environments. One person who would probably agree with that is James Gee, professor at UW-Madison’s School of Education, who has headed up research on the use of video games to create new modes of learning.
“What’s particularly interesting about [distance learning methods] is how slowly they’re coming into educational systems and how little impact they’ve had when people predicted for over a decade how they were going to transform colleges and they were going to transform education,” Gee said, attributing the shortfall to too much mere automation of old tasks and not enough thinking about how to create new teaching and learning methods.
“The role should have been to get us out of these classrooms where everybody’s together with one teacher for exactly the same amount of time each week, to much more flexible education where we really have a mixture of face-to-face and distance learning,” Gee said. Instead, what distance learning forms have mainly done so far is to transfer that traditional classroom environment into an online setting, in which case there hasn’t been much point to participate in it over the older methods.

The professional setting

Gee observes that there is now a greater demand for distance learning in professional settings; unlike full-time students, professionals don’t have the time to go to specialized campuses, but they still have the need to explore new information and ways of communicating with each other.
Michael Maier, an instructional designer for Aurora Healthcare Systems in Milwaukee who attended the Distance Teaching and Learning Conference, noted the continued reliance on face-to-face interaction in healthcare when it comes to communication and learning.
Nevertheless, Maier pointed out, when Aurora recently adopted instant messaging across the enterprise, people immediately latched onto it. Maier also sees potential for online simulations in an environment where real practices often involve keeping track of readings from medical equipment.
“In some sense, there’s a lot of face-to-face training that needs to go on,” Maier said. “But I just think we’ll see greater uses of online as a means of distributing information, and maybe even a greater sophistication in how we can achieve the same thing we get talking face-to-face, but in an online way.”

Students and technology

Schrage points out, however, that the means of using technology must change for one key reason: the technological savvy of the students themselves.
“The media from the outside world, iPods, PCs, cell-phones, which the majority of students of all economic and ethnic backgrounds will possess, will mean students will have better technology endowments than schools,” Schrage said.
In short, schools will have to eventually use technology in new ways, if only to leverage what students already have rather than going to the trouble of peddling their own, he added.

Eric Kleefeld is a writer for WTN based in Madison. He can be reached at