Generations of distance learning

An expansion of comments made in the (VLE) forum:

The generations approach is really only useful for someone who is documenting the evolution of non-traditional environments as a historical project, not as something with any semantic/pedagogic meaning. Different courses, tutors, and students will make use of the available resources in different ways.

Clearly a degree in internet studies is necessarily going to make far greater specific use of the internet and learning environments, than one in, for example, physical education. That isn’t to say that teaching physical education is possible without technologies – it’s nowhere near as effective without them (video particularly) – but rather than the adoption of technologies is dependent on the willingness and suitability of both sets of participants. This seems somewhat similar to ‘The black hole’ story – all aspects of distance/e-learning require commitment and comprehension from tutor and student before they can start to be explored and used effectively.

In this respect, the evolution of distance learning stages that Garrison describes is structured on a historical basis, rather than a take-up/subject-based approach. The latter would be more helpful in identifying the effects that each “generation” of technologies has on the course providers/recipients, rather than the developments from generation to generation.

There is also the question of how to assess the effectiveness and necessity of each approach; with traditional learning, many different teaching formats and learning strategies have emerged, many of which have been left by the wayside. The same will need to happen with distance learning techniques, and many of these will be brand new, bleeding-edge technologies that will require further refinement before they can properly be used. A prime example of this is the fact that web is not quite ready as an accessible medium for all (both technically, and socially), specifically for users with disabilities, but also those with different language requirements and backgrounds. It’s certainly a great step forward compared to some learning systems, but not necessarily all.

It seems wrong then, to treat them as generations which succeed each other; rather they should co-exist and come to the fore where the course locus demands it, so that alternatives can emerge for students who prefer, or need, to be ‘old school’.

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