Distance (from) Learning

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Publication date:

February 08, 2021

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The massive move from in-class teaching to online teaching as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced the concept of distance into the debate on effective learning. With students at a distance from their teacher and one another, is their learning compromised? Many feel it is.

But distance is not new to education. It is perhaps more visible in the context of online teaching but distance now characterizes the core aspects of what formal education has morphed into over time. If we are concerned about the effectiveness of online teaching, we should be concerned about our current approach to education in general. The reason is that distance has made student learning increasingly more fragile. Hence, what the physical remoteness in online learning is drawing our attention to is much more fundamental and ought to be of concern to us all.

My focus here will be on two areas where distance has slowly crept into education: first, the distance between the exposure to knowledge and the learning of that knowledge; and second, the distance between the creation of knowledge and the dissemination of that knowledge.  In both instances, distance snuck in much more slowly than in the drastic shift to distance learning we witnessed as a result of the pandemic. These changes were far less obtrusive and because of that the question of their impact on student learning never arose. With the arrival of distance learning, the spotlight is now squarely on distance and its impact on student learning. It is not a moment too soon because what we had become accustomed to even prior to the arrival of distance learning was already gnawing away at the quality of student learning.

Let me first explore the distance between the exposure to knowledge and the learning of that knowledge. What appears to have happened is that education has taken a distance from learning. Formal education has morphed into a system that focuses more on efficient delivery than on effective learning. The dynamics that have led to this are well described in my book, “Rough Diamonds. Rethinking How We Educate Future Generations”. Education has become much more transactional in the process. Students go to class but have to flee the busy beehives most educational institutions have become to reflect, absorb, and truly learn (i.e., understand) what they have been exposed to in class. As a result, education has effectively outsourced learning to the students. Unless these students have a true learning mindset, not much learning will occur. In most educational programs today, students can muddle through acquiring knowledge but not really mastering it. As a result, they don’t know what they know. Few if any educational institutions check (let alone track) whether their students really have a learning mindset and none are really held accountable in any meaningful way for the effective learning of their students.

Note that in this process, students are left to their own wits to discover how to actually learn. Perhaps the case for all of us but in the 18 years of formal schooling I received, nobody ever told me or taught me what learning was and, more importantly, how I should do it. The only “data” from which we could infer what learning might be were the exams and tests we were subjected to. Since these seldom assessed true learning (i.e., understanding), we shuffled along in the dark trying not to trip on our so-called “learning” journey. What a shame! We probably would all have done much better if somebody had assessed our cognitive learning profile and, based on that, taught us tools, tricks, and strategies on how to learn for understanding as opposed to just for knowing.

A second area where distance has crept into education is in the separation of knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination. These days, students are rarely if ever exposed to the source of knowledge. That source is never a book or a video; at the source of all knowledge are thoughtful human beings. Education has become a big machine of teachers who interpret, translate, and repackage knowledge wedged in between the creation of that knowledge and the student learning of that knowledge. Most if not all teachers neither created nor own the knowledge they convey in their classes; they acquired that knowledge elsewhere and slice, spice, and dice it into the knowledge meal they serve in class (online and offline). It was not always that way.

Looking back into history (and calibrated across cultures), the creators of knowledge used to be the teachers and students could literally touch these great minds. More importantly, these great minds touched the students is ways a messenger of that knowledge cannot. There is a real loss in learning knowledge that is no longer tethered to the brain(s) that created it and the context in which it was created.

Creating distance between knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination has two consequences that adversely affect the quality of learning. First, it robs the students of the exposure to the passion of discovery which is intellectually intoxicating and lubricates inquisitive minds. Second, it prevents the students from being able to align their own learning process with the discovery process the creator(s) of knowledge followed to arrive at that knowledge. The thought process (and the context in which it occurred) which the creator(s) of knowledge followed is lost in most education today. In fact, in most instances, the teachers themselves are unaware of who created the knowledge they convey and how (and why) the creator(s) arrived at it the way they did. Being able to align one’s learning process with the process of knowledge creation provides texture, depth, and perspective that solidify understanding and, hence, learning. What we learn in school today is no longer tethered to its origins and that narrows the horizon of comprehension and stumps inquisitive intelligence.

As we ponder over the effectiveness of distance learning, we should not be blind to what formal education has morphed into over time. We should recognize that in emphasizing efficient delivery over effective learning, distance has permeated education and our students’ learning has become more fragile because of it. Even before distance learning arrived,  education had already taken a distance from learning. Is that not a move away from its core responsibilities? How can we get back on course and bring some accountability to the role education plays in the learning journey of future generations?

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