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Reconceptualising distance education

Garry Gillard

Chapter 3 of: Research in Distance Education 2: Revised Papers from the Second Research in Distance Education Seminar, Institute of Distance Education, Deakin University, 1992: 16-20.

I have been working recently on a reconceptualisation of what is meant by 'distance education'. I have been labouring in the distance education vineyard for many years now, and for a long time have been conscious of the superiority of many aspects of distance as against conventional education, while at the same time conscious of the scorn with which it is regarded by many conventional teachers in higher education.

I am arguing against, firstly, the tendency, within distance education, to define it in the secondary, oppositional way I describe below, and secondly, the acceptance of the assumptions implied in this procedure, which is commonplace in the practice of the conventional teachers with whom I work. I am arguing for, firstly, a redefinition of distance education in its own right/write, and, a consequent change in the discourse around it, and also in distance education methodology for a rethinking of the practice of 'externalisation' (which is the dominant paradigm in the practice of external course development at Murdoch University at least), and replacement of this practice with a model which seeks a unique distance-education design, which may then be offered to conventional education. Such a re-definition should have implications not only for practice but also for research, in that changes in the discourses of distance education will inevitably affect the way research questions are framed and answered. Lastly, I seek a change in conventional education practices to incorporate some of the wisdom of distance education thinking.

It could be said that this paper is the product of a meditation on the complex and multifaceted notion of 'distance', with both its 'good' and 'bad' aspects: as a cause of alienation; as a means of the maintenance of existing power relations; but also as part of a process of improving opportunities for learning; as a starting-point for thinking again about the importance of planning, of the consideration of students' needs and preferences, and about technologies of learning in general. All learners are always already independent learners in a sense: they are all always at a distance.

Like a number of people in the distance education field I also work in another academic area, and I do my teaching in the Humanities. And when I encountered there the ideas of Jacques Derrida I realised that I had found the theoretical tools with which to tackle the task of changing the balance, as between distance and conventional education. For it became clear to me, reading Derrida, that the usual perception of distance education is through an invidious contrast with conventional education, a contrast in which distance education always comes off second best. To make the point clear it was necessary to get together some typical definitions of 'distance education', and then use some key ideas from Derrida's writing to show that there is a false hierarchy in operation, and one which needs to be overturned, not just for the sake of the better understanding of distance education, but for the good of all, in that benefits will flow from a recognition of the value of distance education principles.

In this paper, I will use the term 'conventional education' to refer to teaching as it is carried out in the universities, and most typically in the lecture theatre. Other terms which may be used for this mode include 'proximal', 'contiguous' and 'face-to-face'.

My argument is that distance education is not an inferior and regrettable alternative to education on campus, but is in many ways superior, in being prior, more original. I find, however, that distance education is typically defined as alternative and therefore inferior to a conventional education which is seen as originary. So, distance education is defined or named as non-contiguous, external, off campus, extramural (Keegan 1980). It is 'a form of indirect instruction' (Peters, cited in Keegan: 16). It is 'not under the continuous, immediate supervision of tutors present' (Holmberg 1977: 9). It is done by correspondence, at home, with the implication that people only study at home—or in the situation in which they spend their days—when they are forced to. In fact, this is commonly turned into a defence of the existence of distance education, and therefore an argument for funding it, that it is unfortunately a necessity. We must presume, we are told, 'the existence of two forms of education which are strictly separable: traditional education based on personal communication and distance education based on industrialised and technological communication' (Keegan 1980: 17, from Peters). And distance education is done, above all, by reading.

It is reading and writing that Derrida is mainly concerned with in Of Grammatology (1976), where he draws attention to a philosophy which gives precedence given to the voice. The voice is taken to be the carrier of the most essential of messages, proceeding as they do on the very breath, which is taken to be at least a metaphor for the soul, if not an essential part of the thing itself. As one commentator puts it: 'It is as though the very airiness of words on the breath, the very transparency of the medium in which spoken signifiers so briefly live, actually allowed the hearer to look straight through into the speaker's mind' (Harland 1987: 126). When one thinks of the supposed advantages that the lecturer has, though, over the situation of the writer of a distance education text: lecturers are supposed to be able to become aware of feedback from their audiences, giving them the opportunity to rephrase or restate what they are trying to say. That is, there is an assumption that the content 'of the lecture' is a given, that it is perfectly homologous with the lecturers' intentions, and that is just a matter of the lecturer finding the right words to put it in. If the message appears not be getting across, then, lecturers will continue to supplement what they have already said until it appears that students have understood. And here is the paradox: if what lecturers give voice to is the essential, why is it also essential that they should be able to—in fact are required to—provide supplements to their speech, that they have never said enough?

Derrida himself uses an analogy from education. He notes that Rousseau's argument (in Émile) is that the child is born in a state of perfection, that the natural state is a perfect one, and yet that the child must also be educated, subjected to cultural production, in order to supplement this supposed perfection (1976: 146-7). So although Rousseau seems to be arguing that nature is better than culture, that it precedes it and supersedes it, it is still necessary to supplement the superior with the inferior.

And there are other supplements in the lecture theatre, as well as the oral type, and they are more pertinent to the present argument. For lecturers typically supplement their oral lectures with writing of many kinds, whether on white or black boards, on overhead projection transparencies or slides, or on pieces of paper given as handouts. It seems that it is usually necessary to supplement the supposedly essential spoken word with the written, as if the former were a very inadequate medium indeed. We might also contemplate what lecturers are actually doing: in many cases they will be reading—as opposed to speaking—from their written notes, which they may retain from year to year and use again and again. And for their part students will be also be writing, trying to reduce the flux of oral information to a written form that they can make use of. When looked at in this way it seems that conventional education is much more about writing than first appeared, and much more about writing than about speaking, more about the text than the voice. (And so is distance education, par excellence!) To use another key Derridean term: conventional education always already contains the trace of distance education: writing.

For meaning is not as primarily available as might be supposed by the assumptions of the conventional education model. It is more essentially undecidable, deferred; and it differs from what it appears to be, requires supplementation. Derrida invents a term to convey this dual characteristic: by combining the French verbs for 'differ' and 'defer' he creates a new word 'différance'(1973). We might be tempted to say, using our own key term again, that meaning is always at a distance.

In distance education practice, on the other hand, writing is given precedence, in the broadest sense, including not only the printed word, but graphic materials generally, and even, in audiotaped programs, also the inscription of the spoken word, in a form in which it can be re-read.

Conventional education can benefit from proximity with distance education practices, as it does in mixed-mode institutions like Murdoch and Deakin Universities (and indeed in Australia generally) mainly by the use of materials prepared for distant students. Where an institution teaches in both modes there will often be a desire and a readiness on the part of lecturers to provide materials that they have prepared for external students for the use of those nearer at hand. This will usually cause them to think about what and how they are going to teach sooner than they otherwise might, and to work more systematically. In order to make the most appropriate selection of materials to send external students, lecturers will be looking over their fields well in advance with a view to getting the best from what is available, so that they will be likely to have a better feel for the whole field at the beginning of teaching the unit than they might if they were doing this kind of research at the last minute while conducting the teaching of the course. (This is not, however, to discount entirely the possible benefits of serendipity—but that is another matter.)

Obviously also, material that they will actually write themselves to teach external students may be able to be made available to the internal students, whether in the form of complete transcriptions of the lecture or handouts of outline guides. If so, this may advance internal teaching to the extent that the students can come to what would otherwise have been a formal lecture, during which they would have had to record the lecture themselves in their notes, but which now becomes a seminar, at which they can ask enlightened questions and make informed comments, having had time to consider what the lecturer has to say about the matter in question. You could say that the question time at the end of a lecture, usually a hurried and very selective business, is enabled to expand to take over most of the time available for teaching—a redistribution of time in favour of the student. Alternatively, you could say that the focus has shifted from teaching, where information flows mostly in one direction from lecturer to students, to learning, where information is shared among all the participants. Research in this area, with this new paradigm, could produce interesting results.

All this might also give rise—on the part of lecturers—to consideration of different learning styles. Instead of assuming that all students are capable of learning by listening and by re-assembling in their own minds what they take to be the shapes in their lecturers', those lecturers might come to see that some students—or perhaps all—learn as well or better if they are given the opportunity to incorporate a higher frequency of visual material in their learning strategies. That is, if students are able to read lecturers' notes as well as listen to them, they may be better enabled to learn. Also, if the kind of planning I am advocating is carried out, it will be likely to result in better concept maps (whether framed graphically or in prose) than otherwise. There may also be spinoffs from particular technologies becoming available to teachers using computers, in the form of outlining and presentation software, as well as graphics packages generally.

Research—in education, as elsewhere—must have some awareness of its own assumptions. While researchers in distance education continue to assume that the distance inscribed in their practice is a problem to be overcome—and while researchers in conventional education assume that there can be immediate transfer of information from the mouths of lecturers into the minds of their audiences—both parties will continue to produce results which will tend to support assumptions which I have suggested need to be examined. Taking account of distance as an inevitable—and in some ways even desirable—element in all forms of education should bring about changes in research design which will ultimately benefit students in any learning mode.


Derrida, Jacques 1973, 'Différance', in Speech & Phenomena & Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trs. D. B. Allison, Northwestern University Press, Evanston.

Derrida, Jacques 1976, Of Grammatology, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md, trs. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak from De la grammatologie, Minuit, Paris, 1967.

Harland, Richard 1987, Superstructuralism: The Philosophy of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism, Methuen, London & New York.

Holmberg, Börje 1977, Distance Education: A Survey and Bibliography, Kogan Page, London.

Keegan, Desmond 1980, 'On defining distance education', Distance Education, 1, 1: 13-36.

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