II Distance Education in the Post-industrial Context

Teaching and Learning in Post-Industrial Distance Education

K. Swan


This chapter explores how and why online learning (post-industrial distance education) is quite different from its industrial predecessor, classic distance education. Where distance education was materials and teacher-centered, online learning is student-centered; where distance education focused on independent study, online learning focuses on collaboration; where distance education was grounded in behaviorist and cognitive psychology, online learning is grounded in social constructivist learning theory. It argues that these differences can be traced to the particular affordances of emerging online technologies, namely, access to vast information resources, support for multimedia, the collaborative nature of social media, and the personalization that can be achieved with learning analytics. It explores the ways in which such affordances are well suited to social constructivist pedagogies and the development of learning environments that are learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessmentcentered, and community-centered. The chapter concludes with a short discussion of a social-constructivist process model of online learning, the Community of Inquiry framework.

Post-industrial distance education is quite different from its industrial era predecessor. This chapter explores those differences. Indeed, especially as it is practiced at the post-secondary level, post-industrial distance education is different enough that it is most commonly referred to as “online learning” to distinguish it from industrial era “distance education.” In the discussions that follow I will accordingly use the term “online learning” to refer to post-Fordist distance education and “distance education” to refer to its industrial age predecessor.

Henry Jenkins (2006) writes that media are characterized not only by the technologies they employ but by the cultural practices that surround their use. Similarly, what distinguishes online learning from the distance education of the previous era is not just the digital technologies from which it takes its name, but, more importantly, the pedagogical approaches they enable. Where distance education was materials- and teacher-centered, online learning is student-centered; where distance education focused on independent study, online learning focuses on collaboration; where distance education was grounded in behaviorist and cognitive psychology', online learning is grounded in social constructivist learning theory. In this chapter I will explore why, and more importantly how, online learning is embracing both emerging digital technologies and social constructivist epistemologies. 1 will argue that a particular confluence of emerging technologies, cultural practices, and serendipity has resulted in online teaching and learning that is characterized by social constructivist and inquiry-oriented approaches.

1 will first discuss the emerging technologies that not only support online learning, but which have the potential to enable significant changes in teaching and learning. Emerging technologies themselves are at the center of important cultural transformations around our use of media (Jenkins, 2006; Keen, 2007; Postman, 1994; Stephens, 1998; Surowiecki, 2005).Those transformations obviously contribute to the cultural surround affecting online pedagogies. Another important cultural influence is the relatively recent rediscovery and enthusiastic embrace of social constructivism by the education community. This trend and its implications for online learning are addressed in the second section of this chapter. Equally important from a pedagogical point of view is the way constructivism resonates with age-old academic ideals, and this is where serendipity and confluence come in. Because online learning evolved from early experiments with computer-mediated discussion, and because those early online discussions resonated strongly with traditional notions of the importance of interaction, inquiry, and critical thinking in post-secondary education, online learning has taken on a distinctly social constructivist character. Indeed, the most widely accepted model of online learning is known as the Community of Inquiry (Col) model. In the third section of this chapter, I will explore the Col framework and research findings supporting it.

Pedagogical affordance and emergent digital technologies

All technologies are selective. They facilitate, emphasize, and enhance particular kinds of experiences, while inhibiting, limiting, and sometimes even excluding others (Gibson, 1979; McLuhan, 1964). This is particularly true of communication technologies and cognitive processes, such as teaching and learning. As Gavriel Salomon (1981) reminded us, it also has important implications for pedagogy. Media, and the technologies that enable them, he contended, have unique characteristics that matter, or that can be made to matter, in teaching and learning.

We have witnessed and are witnessing today the emergence and rapid acceptance of a variety of digital technologies which, as McClintock (1999) argued, have already changed what is pedagogically possible. What is different about these technologies is that, unlike the presentation, push-type, technologies which enabled distance education, the new digital technologies supporting online learning are interactive, generative, and uniquely participatory (Jenkins, 2006;Tapscott & Williams, 2006).They are thus particularly supportive of social constructivist pedagogies. Let’s briefly explore a few broad examples and their implications for teaching and learning.

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