On the future of distance education

udme par jacques coolI attended the annual meeting of the Canadian francophone distance education network, REFAD, this week, opening the conference, attending most events and finally participating in a panel discussion. The hospitality by the folks in Edmundston was fantastic and as a speaker I could not have asked for better support. The conference was focused on the future of distance education and I spoke about some of the external influences on educational institutions. My presentation slides, in French, are available on Slideshare.

During the conference, Daniel Peraya explained that in his studies with both entry level university students and more advanced graduate students, both groups avoided the tools and platforms provided by the institution and instead preferred tools that were easy to find, free, flexible, and open. I noted afterwards that this happens in enterprises as well, where workers prefer to bring their own device or create hacks around their learning management systems. Stephen Downes discussed MOOC’s (English transcripten français), saying that they are like languages and require practice and time to master. This is similar to all social media.

A question arose whether educators need to be deep subject matter experts or instead more focused on facilitating learning. I brought up the work of Marina Gorbis in The Nature of the Future, where she discusses the changing nature of the medical field. Gorbis sees a new role for doctors. “In a socialstructed health care system, the doctor is not an omniscient God but a great conversationalist, astute observer, and insightful partner, that is, she is less a robot and more a real human being.” If doctors are becoming more generalized – with specialist work like surgery getting automated or robotized – then will the same forces affect professors? If the most knowledgeable person on a subject is available via a mouse-click, will each institution need its own local specialist?

I closed with a quote from Marina Gorbis, which I think clearly paints a possible future for the focus of public education.

In a world where people’s jobs will not be given to them, each individual will need to look deeply and understand what she or he is good at, how she or he can contribute to multiple efforts and navigate multiple roles and identities as a part of different communities.

Jacques Cool, whose photo of the Edmundston campus appears above, kindly translated this into French for me.

Dans un monde où les emplois ne leur seront pas offerts directement, les individus ont besoin d’examiner en profondeur et dégager une meilleure compréhension de ce qu’ils ou elles peuvent faire, comment peuvent-ils contribuer aux différentes communautés dont ils font partie, ainsi que d’assumer de multiples rôles dans ces communautés.

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