A digital divide only in theory

I was delighted to see Tony Bates’ comment the other day on Supporting Distance Learners, the open educational resource (OER) I wrote with SAIDE, which is on the OERAfrica and OTTER repositories. Tony points to the excellent work that SAIDE has been doing in recent years in promoting the creation of OERs for use in developing countries, in partnership with OERAfrica.

Re-reading the desription of ‘Supporting Distance Learners’, I was struck by the realisation that, although this resource was originally aimed at addressing the sense of disempowerment felt by some tutors in developing countries when making the transition from traditional, paper-based distance education to online platforms, many of the distance tutors I have worked with in England are currently making the same transition, and experiencing almost identical feelings.

Uncertainty about the best way to make use of the discussion forum, wikis, blogs and virtual classrooms; fears about the extent to which online technologies will impact on the flexibility of the course for students; anxiety about the amount of time that will be required for tutors to learn the new technology – and actually e-moderate the course; worries about a perceived increase in opportunities for plagiarism; and fears about the possible challenges to their own subject matter knowledge as a result of student interaction: these are some of the feelings experienced by distance tutors in both contexts.

The primary concern, however, seems to be the recognition that online platforms demand a redesign of distance courses for the collaboration opportunities afforded to be fully exploited, and an uncertainty around how to do this – or even whether it is worth doing at all. Many tutors who have spent their careers in a traditional distance education environment are used to the idea that, for their students, learning is a solitary act of knowledge construction, based on individual reading and reflection, with occasional tutorial support. For these tutors, the idea of building collaboration into the curriculum is a major paradigm shift. (I have written more about the difficulties experienced by new online tutors, and possible ways of providing tutor support, elsewhere.)

Some tutors, in both contexts, however, get excited about the opportunities for peer interaction, and their enthusiasm overcomes all of the above concerns. The real digitial divide seems to straddle developed and developing countries, and seems to be more about tutors’ theories of how distance learners learn – especially their views on individual vs social constructivism – than any contextual obstacles, such as lack of access to computers and the Internet. As much as distance learners need support in the move to online learning, distance tutors need a supportive environment in which to discuss their concerns and share solutions. That way, the theoretical digital divide might begin to blur.

Gabi Witthaus, 3 October 2010

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