Riding with Margaret: Reflections on the Limits of Distance Education
by Nadine Dolby - August 27, 2001
A personal reflection on the undergraduate experience that illuminates the author's concerns about distance education.
I never planned, nor desired, to commute to college. Yet almost twenty years ago, I spent my first semester at Boston College as a commuter student. Actually, I should have been waiting out my last few months of high school. But, bored with high school (well before the explosion of AP and college level learning), I managed to gain early admittance to Boston College. Of course, all the logistics fell into place at the last moment, and there was no space left in the residence halls-particularly for a student who lived within "commuting distance." Barely 17, I had no driver's license, and certainly had no money for a car in any case. Stranded in suburbia, I assembled a complicated network of rides to and from Boston College every weekday.
Most of these rides were simply a means of getting from point A to B. Two mornings a week I rode with a girl up the street, and we chatted about boys, television, homework, and our plans for the future. Two afternoons a week, I rode back to Canton (my hometown) with two ex-jocks from my high school, who listened to the local hard rock station at volumes too loud for conversation (which may have been for the best…). But then, three mornings a week, and several afternoons, there was Margaret.
Margaret was different. Well, to begin with, Margaret's car was different. Margaret had one of those big, old, lumbering boats with fins that provided lots of room to spread out, if not much luxury. Bessie (as Margaret called her) was aging, and though Bessie got us to campus and back, she did not do so at lightening speed. Whereas the other days I zipped up the highway in late model cars, on Margaret days, we ambled through the back roads of Norwood and Dedham on our way to Newton. Perhaps Bessie just could not make it up to 55 (the speed limit in the 1980s), or perhaps Margaret did not feel comfortable trying. Whatever the reason, our journey was slow and leisurely. Bessie, of course, had no radio, so hard rock was out of the question. We would have to entertain ourselves.
Just like Bessie, Margaret had her quirks. Margaret, unlike most of my friends to date, liked to talk about ideas. Whatever she was reading in her introductory philosophy, history, English, or political science classes was dissected and interrogated on our drives to and from campus. Nietzsche and Machiavelli seemed very disconnected from the suburban streets and shopping malls that we meandered by, but somehow they came alive in Bessie's voluminous, home-like interior. When we arrived at either point (the parking lot at Boston College or my house), we would often shut down Bessie's motor, and then spend ten minutes finishing the conversation before we moved on. On the days when I rode to and from campus with Margaret, our afternoon drive would take up where we had left off in the morning-sometimes informed, changed, and challenged by the intervening hours. Unexpectedly, my rides with Margaret evolved into an exciting, integral part of my experience at Boston College. I began to look forward to the ride to campus as much as my actual classes-and gradually the rides also became a place for me to test out and reflect on the concepts I was learning in my classes. As a commuter student, this type of connection that was both personal and intellectual was very important, as I did not have a residence hall full of friends to return to everyday.
In retrospect, I suspect that Margaret and I often got it wrong. This of course, should not be surprising-a 17 and 19 year old engaged in a first conversation about Nietzsche are not headed for philosophical greatness. I am sure that in a classroom, with a professor present, we would have made greater strides in our understanding--but perhaps not in our intellectual excitement and passion for what we were discovering for the first time. The key to our rides, and why they ultimately were so important for me, was that they occurred within an educational context (we were both college students), but outside of the formal bounds of a classroom.
Until recently, I was a lecturer (assistant professor) at a university in Australia, and taught many of my classes in distance mode (not by choice). As the theory goes, distance education is student-centered, as professors can no longer drone on endlessly from yellowed lecture notes. Instead, we must interact with students, and create opportunities for students' active engagement with learning. While this may be true (not that I ever had any yellowed lecture notes), the relationship is often conceived of as one between two people: student and teacher (or facilitator, in distance jargon). Students had contact with me, and some e-mail and chat room contact with each other, but little else. Yet, truly "student-centered" education recognizes that education is much more than a dialogue between two individuals, with occasional input from others. Neither can a student-centered education be contained within the confines of a classroom: whether one with desks, chairs, and a blackboard, or one with a website.
What distance education students are missing--a vital part of an education-- is informal, sustained contact with each other. Despite attempts to create electronic "watering holes," "pubs," "coffee houses," and even student governments to mimic real-life campus interactions, none of these can come close to the intensity of my rides with Margaret. The classroom (whether virtual or real), and the interactions that a student has with a faculty member are only part of an education. The rest of it, perhaps the more critical part, happens everywhere except the classroom. In informal venues, students have the opportunity to test out new ideas, and to begin the type of intellectual engagement that can, potentially (if they take advantage of it), sustain them for a lifetime. Distance education, even in online, synchronous versions, cannot begin to replicate the informal, spontaneous conversations that are part of not simply training students for vocations, but educating them in the full range and possibilities of the human experience.
I have not seen Margaret since our last ride in May of 1982. Bessie, I assume, went to a junkyard long ago. And by this time, the content of our conversations has faded considerably. Several months after my last ride with Margaret, I transferred to Boston University, and found myself living in the residence halls, assigned to a philosophy special-interest floor. There, on the 8th floor of Danielsen Hall, the conversations about Nietzsche continued throughout the night, and went in directions that Margaret and I had never imagined. Yet now, I wonder what different paths my life might have taken if distance education had been an option in 1981. And I am grateful that it was not, and for Margaret, Bessie, and our rides.