I’m a distance learner. And I am studying to be a distance learning designer. Almost everything I do and think about in terms of the field is then consequently governed by a couple of concerns: access, flexibility and reducing transactional distance.
So coming to a conference always strikes me as a little strange. It seems like an excellent opportunity to exchange, share, and connect. I’ve carved out the time for this conference so flexibility this week is not an issues, I’m here so neither is access. But what about transactional distance, hmmm…
Every session I’ve been in has had at least twice as many chairs as people. The people sit far apart, on the edges, quietly waiting for the presentations to begin. The speakers stand up front and speak to a set of slides (I give George Siemens alot of credit for speaking sans slides). After the sessions, the experts, who presumably know each other talk to each other, people who know each meet and discuss amongst themselves. And the pattern repeats.
On two occassions yesterday though, something different happened. At Grainne’s session, they told us to move the chairs into a circle and get closer. At the graduate reception, we sat around little circle tables and talked. It was, for me, by far the best day at the conference and I began to feel connected, at ease safe.
But it wasn’t us as attendees who made the decision to move those chairs, the structure of those events was imposed on us. I’m wondering now how the atmosphere in every one of those sessions could have been improved by removing half the chairs and forcing people to sit closer together.
Having been in my own little bubble for so long, I had been fooled into believing that transactional distance was an issue only in distance education, that it is online learners who have trouble connecting, sharing and taking risks. But those things have nothing to do with distance and everything to do with us. In order to take risks, we need to feel both connected and safe.
I’m now wondering if that needs to be the goal of every classroom, whether virtual or real – to create an environment where learners feel safe and able to comfortably share.
At the ETUG Workshop last month Tony Bates told me (at a topic lunch) that dealing with technology is really more about dealing with people and, unfortunately, people do not change. I agreed with him then, but even more so now. We need to create environments that enable (or gently push) people to meet and connect with people they might not otherwise.
So after three days of talking about technology and the need for digital, cultural and media literacy, I’ve decided that it is really more about social literacy, understanding the real needs we all have and designing environments that encourage us to do something new.