People, Not Pariahs

Reflections on tertiary distance education, and how to do it right

This started life as an email.

I hadn’t originally intended for it to be publicly distributed, but it occurred to me that I’m likely not the only one who feels this way, and that it’s important to not just acknowledge that there’s problems, but to offer a digital tip of the hat to those who actively seek to resolve them. It’s also a touch too much on the personal side for my taste, but it only serves to illustrate just how strongly I feel about this.

I’ve been working on my Master of Communications through Deakin University for some months now. I’m not super proud to admit it, but for a long while I’d been treating uni as a kind of means to an end. It started with me trying a teaching undergrad, just to retrain get a decent job ASAP. When I finally decided that there’s enough mediocre teachers out there without adding me to the mix, I moved back to my home turf with Communications — and I took that same attitude along with me.

The logic was to take journalism electives to double down on my core skills, and take the digital media ones — ALC702 & ALC708 — to future proof them.

What I didn’t expect from taking these digital media units was a minor paradigm shift in how I see tertiary education, and I credit this entirely to the lecturer Adam Brown and tutors @emmawhatman and @cparnell_c.

The enthusiasm of the teaching, the willingness to stay connected outside the limited realms of the (abysmal) university forums, and the sheer joy from making that I got from the unit assessments (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d say) helped to snap me out of my funk and remember that the whole reason I’m here is to learn and grow. It wasn’t perfect, but it was so much more engaging that any other unit I’ve yet attempted.

This not to disparage other lecturers or tutors; the handful I’ve had thus far have all been consummate professionals, and clearly well-versed in their respective areas of expertise. This, rather, is to acknowledge the fact that Adam, Emma & Claire went above and beyond in both the scope and delivery of the unit content, as well as making a clear and active effort towards creating a friendly and productive learning environment.

Read It & Weep

Too often distance education seems to be the poor relation of its on-campus equivalent, with learning reduced to piles of textbooks and journal articles, with no time for proper discussion or synthesis, as if professional educators have to be reminded that reading is not the same as learning (indeed, it was the deepest of ironies that my Bachelor of Teaching lecturers subscribed to this very theory, all the while talking about the importance of acknowledging multiple learning styles. I swear I’ve done myself permanent brain damage from repeatedly banging my head on the desk).

My only regret in taking these subjects is that I’ve had my standards for tertiary distance education so thoroughly and finally met — and exceeded — that every subsequent subject that doesn’t meet the same high standards will seem all the more frustrating because now I know it can be done, and I’ll have to resist the urge to send links to YouTube videos and tweets and weekly Zoom session bookings and scream “Look, multimedia! Creative assessment! Cross-platform engagement! This is how you do it! This is how you treat distance students as people and not pariahs!”

That was a very long sentence, but I promise the rambling and slightly crazed tone accurately demonstrates my frazzled nerves when I think of distance ed (for added crazy, try reading it aloud with black fatigue rings under your eyes and fingernails bitten down to the quick from stress!).

Who puts an exclamation point right before a bracket and full-stop? Honestly, it looks ridiculous.

Where Was I?

Oh, right.

My point is that what these folks did has been completely and utterly unique in my entire experience of tertiary education. And honestly, it’s kind of pathetic. Because for all the noise education institutions make about being forward thinking, and creating innovators, about embracing change and developing an digital economy for the new millennium and other empty buzzwords, they talk a big talk, but don’t walk the walk.

So to every educator and education institution who makes it this far down my rambling manifesto, consider yourselves on notice. This is the standard I expect from you. This is the standard I will teach my kids to expect from you. It’s the standard I will point to with an accusing finger every time someone sits down with a resigned sigh to their home office computer at 9.30pm and stares blankly at a wall of prescribed texts and prays for more caffeine/wine/chocolate to magically appear and take the pain away.

I will not accept “it’s just how we do it”, or “Blackboard is fine, what are you complaining about?” or “it’s not practical”, or “what’s a Zoom?” You don’t have to use the exact same strategies. You don’t have to film yourselves, or set up Trello boards, or tweet. You find what’s appropriate, and what works. But to find these things, you must first look for them.

So get to it.