January/February 2001 // Commentary
Distance Education Exam at the Pearly Gates
by John W. Hibbs
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: John W. Hibbs "Distance Education Exam at the Pearly Gates" The Technology Source, January/February 2001. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

One of my fantasies is to stand with Peter at the Pearly Gates, where he has entrusted me to interview those from the world of distance education about their roles while they were on earth. As a gatekeeper, I must be particularly watchful for distance education's anointed, especially those who spread their influence by way of annual face-to-face conferences.

In this fantasy, I imagine most conversations would be like the following:

Hibbs: Sir, I understand you were one of the most accomplished leaders in distance education. Please tell me about your proudest accomplishments.

Dr. KingPin: I am Dr. Anointed KingPin, famous for my articulations on distance education. For years I organized the Distance Learning Worldwide Conference (DLWC), the world's largest and most respected distance education conference.

Hibbs: What was the purpose of your conference?

Dr. KingPin: To find out about new ways to "deliver" education. Student recruiting, course design, and learning tools were popular topics. The real buzz was about how universities could recruit students from anywhere: new technologies eliminated travel and residential costs, so the opportunities for attracting more students were huge. This was particularly so for those who weren't able to afford a traditional, on-campus education. Distance learning, we claimed, was going to democratize education opportunities.

Hibbs: Tell me more about the "learning tools" you mentioned.

Dr. KingPin: These tools—by which I mean software that created a learning environment for distance learners—became increasingly cheaper because more and more people used the Internet, which in turn brought more vendors to our tables. Best of all, they could be used by anyone with an ordinary computer and an Internet connection. This meant that you could get a complete "virtual" education from the best universities in the world. We eventually convinced prospects that the quality of the virtual classroom was equal to that of the residential classroom. Some even believed virtual was better, considering its ease of communications and interactive benefits.

Hibbs: You must have used these same tools for your conferences.

Dr. KingPin: No, we held a hard line that we wouldn't offer any part of our conferences virtually.

Hibbs: Isn't that contradictory? You claimed that the quality of virtual gatherings is as good as face-to-face and that new technologies made connecting people easy and cheap. Wouldn't your conference have been be an ideal place to practice what you preach?

Dr. KingPin: If we had gone virtual, our attendance would have dropped like a stone. Besides, it's not easy to hold a conference virtually. The equipment and connections were difficult to assemble. Even though most of us were from universities where the equipment was in place, that didn't mean we could use it for conferences. Universities were notoriously difficult to deal with in these matters.

Hibbs: How credible are distance learning advocates who don't communicate online? Isn't this evidence of a discrediting of online discourse in general?

Dr. KingPin: (no reply)

Hibbs: What about the cost of attending your conference?

Dr. KingPin: With airfare, hotel, and conference fees, about $3,000. But cost didn't prohibit the major players from attending. The majority of them came from respected American universities with limitless budgets for distance education.

Hibbs: Again, that sounds contradictory. Only the well-heeled could attend conferences to find out about the self-proclaimed revolution in education. Distance learning was supposed to democratize access to education. But how can you make claims of "democratization" and "equal access" when the very meetings where they were to be institutionalized cost so much to attend? Isn't that evidence that the academy never seriously addressed issues of accessibility and affordability?

Dr. KingPin: (no reply)

Hibbs: Recently, I heard a different angle on this. Someone from the corporate world told me about being able to broadcast—or Webcast—using a cell phone and nothing more. He had held conferences at universities in Finland, Brazil, China, and all across the world, some of them in places with bad connections and outdated equipment. He said he could overcome those problems with elbow grease and imagination. He used all sorts of solutions: audio telephony, free phone calls, video linked to television. His attendees could attend virtually from anywhere on the planet.

Dr. KingPin: He didn't even have a Ph.D. We called him the "Pick 'n Save" man, because he used a little of this and a little of that, sort of patching things together with duct tape. How far do you get using duct tape?

Hibbs: Did you ever attend his conferences? He held a big round-the-world "voyage" once a year, World Learning Day, that was free.

Dr. KingPin: No, to be honest, I had very little interest in the corporate world.

Hibbs: Once more, that's contradictory, isn't it? Distance education was supposed to be about linking people separated by geography. Why not people in separate disciplines or even separate parts of society? It sounds to me as though you in academia ignored the non-academic world at your own peril. You became ignorant of important insights made outside of academia. Some even say that the best work in this field was done by corporations, not universities.

(The fantasy ends when I call Peter over and say, "St. Peter, would you come over here? Something about this story doesn't seem quite right... .")

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