Current practice in Distance Education

Just a few years after the Internet has seized the public imagination, the enormous potential of current technology to affect not just the *location* of the pedagogical process, but also it's time, content, context and constitutive interactions is readily apparent. In every sense, changes that can affect the very culture of education are upon us.

Today the technology of digital libraries, mailing lists, ftp servers, collections of web (chat) pages, online classes on America OnLine has invaded the public American cultural psyche, augmenting television networks, telephone networks, audio/video hookups as the principal ways of conducting education and training at distances. The Globewide Network Academy (see below) shows over 400 Distance Education College course in its catalogue, and is host to a well-populated Teacher Center in which educators discuss the adaptation of net technology to their settings. Courses are being offered around what may be called hypertextbooks on the Internet, augmented with access to live program servers and links to evergreen sites. The United States Distance Learning Association has been in operation since 1987 and claims over 2000 members. The American Journal of Distance Education was established in 1987, and has since also published 4 volumes of ``Readings in Distance Education''.

However, the truly transformative potential of net technology for Education Reform is still ill-understood. To many in the social sciences still vaguely apprehended is the fundamental plasticity of computation, and properties of the convergence of computation and communication. To many in the computational sciences still mysterious are the fundamental studies, nature and practice of the social sciences, of the interplay between anthropology as a study of how peoples have made meaning and education as a study of how peoples transmit their ways of making meaning to future generations.

It is the promise of our time, I believe, that in the nexus of these two broad avenues of intellectual inquiry --- computation and communication on the one hand and anthropology and education on the other --- lies an enormously rich future, beyond what is now being tapped by the congitive theorists. The opportunities enabled by the 'net are primarily *cultural* in nature. Now for the first time we see an immense influx of people into the networked world ... Agriculture and English majors, children, homemakers, just plain people, drawn by the ability to communicate with people across the 'net, the ability to express themselves to the populace at large, and to surf the expressions of others. Literally, many aspects of popular culture are going online. This is the Age in which you are likely to hear of a security bug in a program such as MS IE on the news as you drive in to work, such is its penetration into the mass consciousness.

The promise of the Internet to fundamentally alter the structure of education is not without its problems however. Mere technology cannot overnight wreak sea-changes in centuries old traditions, social conventions and negotiated balances (e.g. availability for students vs. time for research). Much of what is now available online is merely old wine in new bottle --- e.g. material based on the same old pedagogical principle of pouring knowledge into the diligent student's head, repackaged up (but its in Java, you see!). (Each computational revolution starts with people stumbling through the steps of computationally redoing current practice ... only subsequently are the true tranformational, transcendental paradigms ``the killer apps'' discovered.)

The myth is that through the promise of distance education, knowledge can be delivered from the experts to the person needing it, anytime anywhere. Recorded thought patterns --- video, web pages --- can, but the construction and communication of knowledge is much more than the transmission of disembodied, decontextualized information (however multi-media it might be). Who will help raise the provocative questions, guide group discussion, help the group of learners make sense togther? Even though the videotapes and web pages may come from the world's best educators on that topic, the need for a group of students to understand that material in their own terms, to translate it into their own context of usage and meaning, adapted to their own current views of the world will not be dimnished. And hence the need for ``live'' teachers --- who understand the educational process, the material and the students at hand, and who have access to (and are adaptive to) the actual context of learning --- will not be dimnished, only transformed somewhat. And if we are to believe researchers such as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (see below), an intergral role Universities play is the socialization of neophytes, initiation into the culture of the learned, acculuturation into the methods for the actual practice and construction of the discipline.

Life-long K-Grey Learning Environments

Must then the actual context of the practice of education stay subject to the tyrannies of co-location and co-temporality? I believe not. I believe that we have at hand already technology --- somewhat flawed, but basically sound --- for supporting online communities of co-learners (teachers, students) in such a way that they can share and record context and content in very fine-grained ways and in such a way as to buttress (not replace) their offline interactions. The technology arises from game-playing (where it is called MUDs; the specific technology I am interested in is more narrowly called in that community MOOs; I prefer to call it network spaces, and the online communities that inhabit them network communities ) and points the way to the creation of life-long multi-age learning environments.

A network space is a server running on the 'net that accepts connections from ``players'' anywhere on the 'net, and presents them with a permanant ``virtual reality'' within the context of which the players can communicate, converse, build, extend, work and play. The virtual world is populated with objects --- players are objects to --- which may represent tangible real world objects such as homes, cars, streets, school buildings, class-rooms, conference halls, white-boards, assignments or more abstract objects such as programs, interfaces to other services on the 'net (encyclopedia, dictionary, course material). Crucially, the world is permanant --- the objects you create stay, even when you disconnect. Crucially, there is a technically supported sense of ownership and control --- you own the objects you create and (most) others cannot perform operations on these objects that violate your ownership. Together with anytime, anywhere acess (you can connect if you are on the 'net), network spaces provide a smooth blend of asynchronous and synchronous communication media (talk, chat channels, email, bboards) --- typically participants can construct their own email-lists and control acces to the material and spaces they create. Players are free to project various online personnae --- however in most educational settings it becomes necessary for security reasons to have explicitly disclosed real world identities. Network spaces are typically text-centered, but the technology to provide integrated web-access, audio, video, GUIs, 3-d animation is already at hand. All this is made possible because underlying the network space is a full-fledged modern object-oriented programming language (underlying web pages is just HTML!).

In my work with these ideas in the last three years, I have found them immensely generative for an extra-ordinarily diverse collection of people, and providing for many the context in which to establish a ``home'', a presence in cyberspace that they can return to over and over again. While at Xerox PARC, I co-established a space (Pueblo) that is in daily curricular use by over 500 K-6 children at an inner-city Phoenix school, as well as teachers, parents, researchers, college students, senior citizens from nursing homes. (Because of their explicit support for learning values, and insitence on discosed real-world identity, these spaces are far removed from the untramelled unruliness of places such as LambdaMOO (made notorious by Julian Dibbel's article on Rape in Cyberspace)). Diversity U has been offering MOO-based classes for three years. Prof. Syverson and Slatin at UT Austin have been conducting very successful undergraduate English classes on CheshireMOOn, a delightfully literate place set in the story of Alice in Wonderland. Professors at George-Mason University are using a MOO to teach a series of C++ classes to high-school teachers in Germany. Linda Polin on the Education faculty at Pepperdine works with the ``Cadres'' she teaches on a MOO as well as in a real classroom.

Among other points, one stands out: these spaces help make concrete and explicit the actual practice of teaching in the form of a log already symbolically registered and accessible for future reflection and analysis. Because the participants are working through a server, it is possible to log their ongoing fine-grained interactions in powerful ways that reflects the multiplicity of the participants' contributions .. makes the actual practice concrete and accessible. In this way they open the door to powerful support for the development of tools both formal and informal (intelligent evaluation and assessment agents, tutors, intelligent access, learning assistants) and social practices but in a fundamentally social context.

But MOO as a computational architecture for network spaces has several drawbacks. It is based on a closed sequential computational model --- the only access to the permanant, closed, database the core of the system is via TCP/IP client connections. Primitive permissions model. The computation model heavily relies on single-threading (in order to avoid explicit synchronization constructs in the language for most applications programs) making a distributed version essentially untenable.

The Matrix project at AT&T Research is laying the foundation for an architecture for an open, scalable, distributed interoperating network of network spaces. We expect the architecture to support several hundred network spaces, each supporting communities of several hundred users, while resolving issues such as owernship and control in localized fashions. Some useful references on the Web: