A New Kind of Distance Learning

Distance learning, elearning, blended learning - these terms do have different shades of meaning, I’d like to add another to the list - connected learning. 

Wharton University of PennsylvaniaIn a famous story about languages, researchers studying the Greenland Inuits documented their use of 15 different terms for snow. By way of comparison, the Navajo have two – one for falling snow, and a second for everything else. In the use of technology in education we have a growing set of terms that appear on the surface to represent the same thing – distance learning, elearning, blended learning for example. In the spirit of Greenland’s Inuits I’d like to suggest these terms do have different shades of meaning, and I’d like to join those calling for adding another term to the list– connected learning.

The term is a play on words, of course, and an example of the old marketing trick of avoiding the baggage of one phrase by inventing another. Distance learning suggests for some a detached, lighter and less serious version of learning. I personally believe that distance learning is a noble cause, providing access to college to those who otherwise find themselves left outside the ivy covered gates– imagine displaced autoworkers in Detroit or single mothers in Oakland completing coursework after putting the kids to bed. In some instances the barrier to access is not distance, but capacity.

At Miami Dade College, more than 30,000 students cannot take courses required for their programs because there are not enough seats available in classrooms. With recorded lectures and interactive courseware, classrooms can be reserved for personal interaction and exercises, and thus scheduled more efficiently. Enabling greater access to higher education and increasing capacity are critical objectives in the current economic crisis.

But access and capacity are not the goals driving what I am referring to here as connected learning. The technology experiments we are conducting at Wharton have a very different objective, and as a result, a different design for technology enabled learning environments. Our objective is to use technology to take advantage of the fact that distance between learners sometimes provides opportunities for learning that would never work as well in a traditional classroom. Connected learning seeks to explore alternative venues while maintaining the immediacy and intimacy of the traditional academic community. When successful, the result is a higher quality experience and stronger learning outcomes than would be available through traditional means.

This summer, for example, we had students working summer jobs and internships in companies all over the world, in workplaces at Google, Microsoft, Cisco and Apple, at manufacturers in Australia, China and Japan, financial service firms on Wall Street and tech firms in Israel. Each Tuesday evening 15 of these students joined in a web conference with Tom Lee, a faculty member conducting class from Wharton San Francisco.

The class focus is the design and development of new web based products and services. The differing perspectives provided by students in various summer work and internship sites represent a rich resource for discussion and team-based project coursework. This connected classroom now has access through internships to a global laboratory, with diverse settings for testing and experimentation, and for exposing academic models and textbook analysis to the informed and immediate critique of current practitioners. The distance bridged by connected learning is not just geographical, but can include the divide between practice and the academy.

At its root, this is not really new. Practicums, internships and field studies have a long tradition in universities. John Dewey outlined the importance and processes of reflection in practice over 100 years ago. What is different is that our technology now allows us to transcend the barriers of distance and time much more effectively than was possible before. Incremental quantitative advances in bandwidth, video frames per second, cloud based storage and processing and other technologies have reached a tipping point, with qualitatively new opportunities for learning now emerging. Connected learning is the effort to explore the added value of distance in our programs of study, with our students acting as agents in wider communities beyond the campus ivy covered gates.


About the Author

Don Huesman is the Managing Director of the Innovation Group at the Wharton School



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