The Dialectics of Distance

I’ve been thinking lately about the ways that secondary costs related to higher education are another source of expense (and debt) for students, faculty and institutions. Electronic information communication technology (ICT) is one obvious form of recent expense that has shifted from the periphery to the center. One of the ways that developments in ICT are colliding with education is in the areas of “distance education.” While there are many arguments that have been made both for and against distance learning, the confluence of political, economic, technical and institutional conditions in creating a climate for the debate is hard to ignore. Think of the relations between interests involved here: IT corporations (software, hardware, connectivity services) and educational institutions; administrations and faculty; corporations and students; corporations and faculty; students and faculty; peer-to-peer. These relations are not simply “in service” of education, they are ways that education models behavior and creates expectations about what it means to participate in social, political and economic life. Who are we made responsible to in these shifting relations? Who do we get closer to and further away from?

The late David Noble, author of Digital Diploma Mills, is just one person who has written about technological fetishism within the academy as it relates to things like distance learning. [See this piece in the Monthly Review, adapted in 2002 from his then new book Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education] While distance education is an obvious battleground for these concerns (job loss and intellectual property being primary ones) ICT is already a major part of the classroom ecology, as most of us know. Some of the more recognized proponents of using ICTs in the classroom have recently qualified their use of such platforms. Noted associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University Michael Wesch, who received a “Rave Award” from Wired magazine, is careful to state that technology should always, and only, be in service of developing better relationships with students. We can also never assume that everyone’s access to the technology (and the content it carries) is equal, as a report in the NY Times reminds us.

As faculty use the tools of collective bargaining to argue for and construct more equitable work places and education experiences, it’s also important to keep our eyes on the infrastructures we create and adopt. These infrastructures create the conditions for the relationships we will have with our students, each other and the larger institution.

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