The Convergence of Distance and Conventional Education: Patterns of Flexibility for the Individual Learner
reviewed by Robert V. Steiner - 2001
Title: The Convergence of Distance and Conventional Education: Patterns of Flexibility for the Individual Learner
Author(s): Alan Tait and Roger Mills, eds
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415194288, Pages: 232, Year: 1999
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The Convergence of Distance and Conventional Education is a volume of essays addressing the factors that continue to blur the distinction between campus-based education and distance learning. The range of convergences covered is impressive, including student access, technology, cost, quality, student types, faculty support and the demands of the marketplace. In targeting convergence, the volume provides many useful insights into both the opportunities and threats posed by the increasing prevalence of distance education in particular and technology-mediated education in general.
The editors of this book are Alan Tait, a staff tutor in the School of Education at the Open University (UK), and Roger Mills, the Director of the Open University in East Anglia. In their opening essay to the volume (one of a series of distance education monographs published by Routledge), Tait and Mills place their theme in context, noting both the rapidity of convergence as well as its breadth and depth. They describe governmental lifelong learning policy initiatives, financial pressures, resource constraints, the rise of learner-centered approaches, inadequate capital investment, institutional resistance to change, new technologies and weaknesses in institutional policy. The essays that follow expound on these topics, with several of them addressing, in one form or another, whether the current convergences are likely to yield more accessible, higher quality opportunities for learners on a global basis, or, as Tait and Mills put it, "a diminished and commoditized servicing of corporate agendas".
The contributors address diverse aspects of these convergences. Some provide specific insights into program development, faculty support, learner support and evaluation in a technology-mediated environment. Others provide riffs on the inherent tension between the traditional values, governance and processes of academia and the attempt to approach education from a market orientation. Still others speak to the long-term political, social and economic implications of convergence.
More specifically, the individual contributions include essays on the use of digital multimedia; on the deeper implications of providing access to nontraditional learners; on institutional change; on the differing interpretations of providing "flexible" education and on its implications for academic practice; on the convergence of differing approaches to learner support in the UK; on the convergence of student types; on the experience of female students in distance learning; on the convergence (and attendant concerns) regarding the evolution of student experience in the UK over three decades; on the library experience (and typical frustration) of distance learners; on the policy implications of convergence; on critical issues in the adoption of information and communication technologies in higher education; on the realities of multimedia development; and on the integration of constructivist and postmodernist ideas in the design, development and evaluation of an undergraduate degree offered at a distance.
The contributions vary considerably in scope, impact and likely durability. As one might expect, some of the discussions focusing on specific technologies, such as CD-ROMs, are unlikely to wear well with time. On the other hand, the discourses on lifelong learning, government policy and the battles, in varying forms, for the soul of distance education are likely to remain relevant for a while. I particularly enjoyed Lee Herman and Alan Mandell’s ruminations on institutional decision-making about "who learns and how, what and why they learn" and its implications for democracy, authority and the "normative values" that education has traditionally promoted. They articulate well the concerns of many over the exclusionary face of "access: "In the name of our so-called ‘knowledge society’, learning itself becomes a harsh and uncivil tool in the competition for money, power and national prestige." Co-editor Tait’s essay on the policy implications of convergence is also very good, addressing social institutions, businesses, the increasingly compulsory nature of lifelong learning and, echoing Herman and Mandell, concerns over who will be marginalized if current trends continue.
One can take issue with the individual viewpoints, express frustration over the limitations of both research data and theoretical foundations in this field, and even challenge the book’s fundamental thesis that higher education is moving inexorably toward the convergences described. I would have enjoyed a more global outlook from contributors beyond the British, North American and Australian ones represented. While capably written, few, if any, of these contributions break fundamentally new ground. Nevertheless, The Convergence of Distance and Conventional Education provides a thoughtful and well-informed addition to current discourse on distance learning. Although likely to be of primary interest to scholars, there are also selected gems here for practitioners, administrators and policymakers concerned with the forces reshaping higher education.