Common Metaphors and Their Impact on Distance Education: What They Tell Us and What They Hide


by Katrina A. Meyer - 2005

This article explores some of the common metaphors used to illuminate the Web and its application to distance education. Using the work of Lakoff and Johnson (1980) as a foundation for understanding and categorizing metaphors, the advantages and disadvantages for our future of such metaphors as the "Web,""Information Highway,""virtual,""surfing,""information as education," and "distance education" are evaluated.

WHY METAPHOR?


The introduction of new technologies into the modern world created the perfect conditions for the rampant development of metaphors to help explain the new and unknown technology in terms of what was already known. Not only do we use such metaphors as the “Web” and the “information highway” to capture what the Internet is and can do, but we regularly describe technology as a “tool” and talk about “cyberspace” and “networks.” This language helps us better understand the changes happening around us, by defining the less concrete by means of reference to a more concrete concept (Lakoff and Johnson 1980).


Perhaps because the World Wide Web was so very different from other technologies, our language about the Web has grown metaphors of all varieties. And if the role of metaphor is to provide a means to connect two concepts (from the Greek meta “over, across” and pherein “to carry”), our metaphors create a conceptual framework to help us understand our emerging technological world. As a result the metaphors we use to describe this world will be especially influential in shaping our beliefs about the role of technology in the future and whether that role will be for good or ill. In other words, the metaphors applied to technology will have implications for distance education, and especially for what it is and how students learn.


The problem with metaphor, however, is its ability to capture the imagination and consciousness of the user and subsequently to preclude the development of other metaphors or alternative understandings based on different connections. For every metaphor highlights one aspect of the concept, just as it hides another; Lakoff and Johnson (1980) call this “metaphorical systematicity” (10). This means that a metaphor that is useful for highlighting an important way to characterize the Internet as the “Web” will likely make other, non-web-like qualities less obvious to the user. In time and as a result of long usage, we may not be able to see those other qualities, even after some conscious effort. So there is some danger to concretizing a concept through metaphor prematurely, despite its usefulness in improving understanding of a new concept. We could call this a “hardening of the conceptual metaphor,” a condition that could spell the closure of new concepts and/or new ways of understanding our new technologies.


Because metaphor has these known qualities, it is important to ask how and in what manner our current metaphors about technology and distance education may be influencing our understanding of their potential and precluding the development of alternate views. In this metaphor-rich field of technology-enhanced distance education, the metaphors we currently use have important implications for how we view its future and current roles.


This analysis has six parts. The first part will focus on the general metaphors that have grown up around the Internet and the World Wide Web (or simply the Web, for brevity's sake). The second part focuses specifically on four metaphors that capture the Web's educational uses and three metaphors that illuminate its allure for educational users at either the K-12 or higher education level. The next two sections focus extensively on two specific, but powerful, metaphors on information as education and distance in education that shape our current views about distance education. The final section presents two cautions about metaphors that tend to dictate our approach to distance education. And lastly, the conclusion summarizes the conceptual ramifications of our metaphors, as they affect current and future applications to education, our very definition of an education, and the future of distance education.


THE WEB: SAVIOR, SATAN, AND SIMPLE (OR NOT SO SIMPLE) TOOLS


The Internet is no normal invention but a most powerful and meaningful metaphor has been attributed to it: the web. And as with every new invention, it was hailed as the solution to society's ills and the genesis of new ones. And perhaps in response to its critics, the supporters have tried to focus attention on the metaphors that highlight its nonthreatening and well-known qualities. This section focuses on a sequence of metaphors that begins with a web and then discusses metaphors that highlight its helpful (information highway), evil (message), and nonthreatening (truck and tool) qualities.


SPIDER'S WEB


In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a software program called WorlDwidEweb that would “store random associations between disparate things” (Berners-Lee n.d.) via a point-and-click hypertext editor. Whether Berners-Lee understood fully the implications of calling his software a web or not, it is a metaphor that has grown in popularity, due in part to its ability to explain the Internet in such a way that many can grasp its structure, and hence, its applications.


One can envision bits of information as nodes on a spider's web, connected by tenuous lines to your computer. This metaphor implies that the spider is the computer user and the Web his or her domain, free to search for food (or information) by means of a searching mechanism (or software program) that we now call Yahoo, MSN, or Google (among many others). (These are known as “browsers,” a metaphor borrowed from browsing stacks in a library, scanning for the information one needs.) The reason why the web metaphor “works” is its ability to help us visualize our relationship (or our computer's relationship) to thousands of other computers with information that can be viewed, downloaded (perhaps the corollary of attaching a hapless fly in bands of silk on the Web?), and used.


There is a lesser known but spiritually powerful analogue in the term “Indra's net” from the Rig Veda. The “net of threads throughout the universe” is a web where at every crossing there is an individual who is a crystal bead that reflects light from every other bead. In this way, all humans are a reflection of divine light, seen and understood through our similarities with others and connected with our fellows by a net of threads and a sharing of the light. It is little wonder that the Web has spiritual connotations to some of its users in addition to its role as a repository of information on various spiritual beliefs and organizations.


There are a number of important aspects to the real World Wide Web that are not captured by the metaphorical web. The first, already alluded to, is the mistaking of the self or spider as the center of the web when in actuality it is the computer that is attached to the Web. This mistake is a most interesting one, and it has far-reaching implications. By mistaking a computer for the self, the computer becomes an undifferentiated agent of our larger purposes. The computer, at times, dissolves into the self (or the self into the computer) creating a condition of existential confusion that is belied in such statements as “I was surfing the Web last night” and “I found this great site” when, of course, it is the computer that performs these functions and the software functioning as a browser that locates sites. While this mistake does not markedly harm communication, it may have longer term impact on a generation's ability to distinguish self from its experience online. An individual who cannot distinguish between his or her own actions and those of a machine (although it may be under the individual's direction) may not have a clear or mature sense of himself or herself as time goes on. He or she may forget that he or she directs the machine or that he or she caused it to do what it did and eventually lose a sense of separateness.


Second, in the spider's world, the arachnid goes out onto the web, reconstructing its broken connections and checking on its hidden cache of food. In the Web world, the computer user goes nowhere but sits safely in an office, viewing what the browser has brought to him or her. This difference may be an important reason why many computer users perceive that they “go to” places, visiting Web sites and even foreign lands, when the only thing that has traveled is the browser's searching mechanism. This illusion of mobility may be partially a function of the metaphor and partly a result of what Reeves and Nass (1996) call the invisibility of the computer. For many everyday users, the computer is a conduit to other places and becomes invisible as we project ourselves into others' Web sites. This mistake—a result in part of the web metaphor—may contribute to the development of an increasingly illusory sense of self. As long as the computer is invisible and one confuses the computer's actions for one's own, an individual may be well on his or her way to developing an inaccurate and confused sense of his or her own personality and qualities. Indeed, he or she may appropriate the qualities and abilities of the machine to himself or herself and develop illusions about where he or she has actually visited, what he or she can do, and whom he or she has met.


Third, conceptualizing the World Wide Web as a spider's web also misses an essential element: that of the Web's existence in space. The spider's web is roughly two-dimensional, extending from shrub to tree limb in a loose plane and made of a simple, geometric design. But the actual Web is three-dimensional, located in computers and servers around the globe, in skyscrapers and subterranean vaults connected by multiple lines and creating an impossibly complicated geometry. On the other hand, it is this sense of the Web's lines of mostly intelligent communication encircling the earth that has fueled the metaphor of a “living earth” or “global brain” (Russell n.d.) or the idea that the Web may be a good metaphor for the systems of the brain (Shanor 1999).


Fourth, using the web as a metaphor also brings with it an emotional valence that may be unconscious but still influential. For someone who sees in the form of the Web a suitable image for humanity's interconnectedness, it is a positive metaphor. For anyone who has inadvertently brushed against a spider's web and tried to disentangle its sticky filaments from the skin, the metaphor may generate unpleasant sensations. For the spider, it may be a tool for capturing a meal, a mere instrumentality to gain an essential end. For the critic, Web-based distance education is a mockery of what true education ought to be, as lightweight as the slender web that billows in a mild breeze. In this fashion, the Web becomes savior, Satan, or a simple tool, depending on one's emotional experience with the metaphor.


INFORMATION HIGHWAY


In Carvin's (n.d.) history of the Information Highway, there is a coming together of a fortuitous realization that the United States was connected by telephone and cable lines and that these wires could be used “for more than just conversations and one-way broadcasting.” With the addition of networking technology and services, the new system—as yet unnamed—could allow users “all over the country to exchange data, video, music, information, and anything else they could think of, in real time.” This networking together of existing lines would be a savior to the nation's economy and became known as the Information Highway (a term popularized by former Vice President Al Gore), which is a particularly telling metaphor, understandable to millions of Americans who were familiar with the nation's highway system, but oversimplified and ultimately, misleading.


Both parts of the metaphor contribute to its usefulness as an explanation of what many normal Americans could not grasp about this new technology. First, it referred to the highways that crisscross the countryside and that any good map will make clear to the confused motorist (this precludes the occasional motorist with poor directional attennae). A highway map captures the more irregular nature of the Web, which the spider's web with its regular construction does not, and it illuminates the ability for travel to occur via multiple routes. In this metaphor, it is the links that make up the “geography of the Web” (Weinberger 2002, 49), providing the intersections and decision points for the purposeful traveler. And while it is true that there is no one way to get from point A to point B, the metaphor goes further: There are hubs where roads accumulate in a metropolitan city, and there is inevitable road construction that can slow down the motorist or force him or her to take an alternative route—the dreaded detour. All in all, these similarities make the metaphor a useful one.


Second, information modifies or describes the highway, telling us that information would travel along the highway, not the car or the motorist, but perhaps something as valuable as produce being trucked from the farm to the market or manufactured goods headed for stores across America. This implies that information is both valuable and easily packaged for transport, with both a point of origin and a destination. But if there is one difficulty with the metaphor of the Internet as an Information Highway, it is its implication that information was both its sole and sufficient reason for existence and that information would be the highway's greatest blessing to the recipients, from homes to businesses and, most importantly, schools. A later section will develop more fully the unfortunate hidden message of stressing information in the metaphor of the information highway.


MEDIA AS MESSAGE


Marshall McLuhan (1964) proposed the notion that technology is not without its own effects, a notion that has been popularized in the saying, “the medium is the message.” While McLuhan was mostly interested in television, his adage has been applied to most technologies and to those activities (such as distance learning) that are conducted through or with technology. The metaphor implies that the technology has its own message, independent from the content or uses being conveyed, or that it can shape its user in ways the original designers of the technology could not foresee. In this sense, the metaphor captures a fear that technology has an evil influence on society and ourselves, a satanic influence that might well be worth eschewing. This pervasive metaphor may well be the driving force behind research studies (such as Healy 1999) that address how use of the Internet in education has affected young children or adolescents.


In his analysis of McLuhan's impact, Levinson (2001) regrets that McLuhan's statements have fueled “the fire of worry that bad things are happening that we can't know or understand” (19). And while McLuhan proposed that the “medium has an impact above and beyond what we do with it” (Levinson 2001, 4), there is no firm evidence as yet that the worriers are correct (Meyer 2002). However, it may well be a testament to the power of metaphor that so many in education continue to expect that such an impact is real, despite evidence to the contrary and the two competing metaphors discussed next. In other words, fears of Satan are more powerful and pervasive than assurances that the technology is our servant.


DELIVERY TRUCK


With so much emphasis on technology as a stand-in for Satan, early supporters attempted to find metaphors that emphasized a more harmless and nonthreatening technology. The first of these, a “delivery truck,” came about as a result of early studies on distance education that compared the standard outcomes of a course (e.g., grades, test scores) for students in distance learning versus traditional, or face-to-face, courses. After reviewing 355 studies produced between 1928 and 1998, Russell (1999) coined the term “the no significant difference phenomenon.” Despite the technology used, the results are the same: no difference in student achievement. Russell concludes, “There is nothing inherent in the technologies that elicits improvements in learning” (xiii). Clark (1994) concluded that technology is “merely a means of delivering instruction” (22), a delivery truck. Saying that technology is a delivery mechanism is a metaphor that stresses the role of technology as a container for what is delivered (most likely information) and not influencing its contents. Its responsibility is to deliver the cargo safely to its destination. The implication is that the delivery mechanism, or type of technology used, will not significantly influence student learning or achievement, much as a delivery truck would not be expected to change the taste of the loaves of bread it transports. Russell concludes, “No matter how it is produced, how it is delivered, whether or not it is interactive, low-tech or high-tech, students learn equally well” (xiv).


The delivery truck metaphor hides one important element that is curiously missing in much of the research literature on use of media on student achievement. Clark (1994) and Kozma (1994a, 1994b) have discussed at length the important role of pedagogy in media studies. In other words, learning is caused not by the technology, but by the instructional method “embedded in the media” (Clark 1994, 22), although Kozma (1994a) noted that media and instructional approaches are essentially integrated and therefore, method (pedagogy) must be confounded with the medium (technology). Kozma (1994a) stated that “both medium and methods influence learning and they frequently do it by influencing each other” (11). This more dynamic and complicated relationship of media and instructional method is not captured by the delivery truck metaphor, which may explain why this metaphor is not as influential with educators as the message metaphor.


TECHNOLOGY AS TOOL


Perhaps as a response to the popularity of the “medium is the message” metaphor promulgated by early studies of television, another metaphor arose over time and gained in popularity. “Technology is a tool” became a metaphor used in many studies and treatises on technology in the 1990s, and this metaphor focuses on more benign aspects of technology: its instrumentality and its service to larger (human) ends. The tool metaphor places technology in the same context as a relatively harmless set of home tools—a hammer, screwdriver, set of pliers—that can be used to help us maintain our homes or cars. With the “technology as tool” metaphor, we view technology as a means to an end, an aid to gaining something deemed important. In this context, we have quotes such as “Technology is a tool; by itself, it cannot teach anything” (Morrison 2000) and “technology will never influence anything” (Clark 1994, 21). In other words, this metaphor is ideal for encouraging the belief that technology will not unduly influence learners or learning.


Of course, what this metaphor hides is the reality that tools can also be used to inflict harm on another person, although that is neither their intended use nor their predominant use by most individuals. A hammer can both drive a nail into a wobbly stud to stabilize a wall and bash a head in to disable an intruder or eliminate a competitor. Because of this nature of tools, the metaphor supports an interpretation that a tool has multiple uses—it is flexible. Those uses can be simple ones or complicated ones, depending on the use to which it is put and the creativity of the user. Whether the tool works for good or ill is the result of the motives of the user and the uses made of the tool. (This is dangerously close to the saying “Guns don't kill people, people do,” although the cultural mystique of guns may play a larger role in encouraging people to use them than is the case for hammers.) In any case, the tool metaphor may have been influential in lessening some of the fears of technology, and it may have encouraged a greater focus on the ends of technology use in education.


THE WEB IN DISTANCE EDUCATION: ITS USES AND ALLURES


Now we turn our attention to those metaphors that specifically relate to distance education. The first four metaphors capture different educational uses for the Web, from the least familiar uses to the more common uses: learning communities, the library, surfing, and communication. The second set of three metaphors will discuss in detail how the Web has allures or advantages for education, specifically in its relationship to time, virtuality, and cyberspace. Not surprisingly, each of these metaphors has several implications for educators (some are positive and others negative) and is worth our paying attention to how it changes our perceptions of what kind of education is possible, courtesy of the Web.


LEARNING COMMUNITIES


Perhaps the newest metaphor to be used for Web-based learning is the learning community. It is based on a similar concept that began to be implemented in the 1990s as a structural and curricular response to criticisms that higher education often discouraged newly arrived freshmen and was too limited by disciplinary boundaries. Groups of students were formed, often in tandem with faculty who acted as teachers or advisors, in the hopes of creating the sort of community where students would bond, help each other, and better survive the transition to a very different world.


The effort to create learning communities online has been ably discussed by Palloff and Pratt (1999), although there has been scoffing at the idea that students can bond in an online environment, without seeing each other and/or meeting their peers face-to-face. To the doubters, community is described in an idealized sense, something like a family, church group, or neighborhood bonded by a common purpose or interests. It takes time and much conversation (Locke, 1998) and, by definition, cannot occur online. And yet groups occur all through life, from condominium associations to Sierra Club members and home team football fans. These types of groups occur when individuals band together for a specific purpose, although the separate individuals may not see each other or bond to any great extent with other group members. A learning community—a group of students brought together to learn select material—is not so outrageous nor so impossible as the doubters declare. In fact, there is linguistic support for this point of view, since community and communicate share the same root, communicare, which means to share (Palloff and Pratt 1999, 25).


The metaphor for online education as the creation of learning communities (or “electronic learning communities”) has some positive connotations, not the least of which is the expectation that learning need not be a solo activity and that helpful relationships can be forged in the online world. Creating learning communities is made easier by humans' ability to “respond socially and naturally to media even though they believe it is not reasonable to do so” (Reeves and Nass 1996, 7). In the experiments conducted by Reeves and Nass (1996), “participants were not aware that they equated media with real people and places ... [since] responses to media are not conscious” (7). In other words, it is “natural for people to treat media socially” (149, italics in original). This is an interesting finding, and it may explain why many individuals are finding friendships online and why Web-based distance education can be expected to create meaningful short-term learning communities.


Much like other human groups, learning communities require some planning and organization, a purpose for being, rules of operation, and/or roles for enforcing group norms and getting group business completed. Learning communities don't just happen as a result of connecting students to a Web chat room, but must be consciously developed.


If there is a downside to the learning community metaphor, it is the expectation that all classes will achieve the status of “community.” Not all classes or disciplines may be expected to evolve into learning communities, although given the popularity of study groups and informal assistance that is common among students, perhaps communities develop despite the intentional design or conscious recognition of faculty. Nor should one expect that a person's sense of belonging to a community would be solely dependent on his or her online conversations and connections, for that ignores the range and number of normal interpersonal interactions each of us experience on a day-to-day basis. But it is clear that online learning communities will likely augment our own communities—from family, friends, and neighbors to citizens of a town, state, or nation—and bring new people and relationships into our lives.


VIRTUAL LIBRARY


Perhaps one of the less prevalent (but more telling) early metaphors for the World Wide Web was a library, or virtual library, a term that began to be used in the popular press in 1987 (O'Donnell 1998). In those early stages, this did not refer to electronic access to actual libraries, as is common now. But as a term (and a metaphor), it harkens back to what O'Donnell (1998) calls a “dream,” beginning with the Alexandrian Library and reappearing throughout the ages in libraries collected by assorted princes and now taking form as the pseudo-current term “virtual library.” This metaphor implies that the Web itself might act as a multisite, multinational library, containing information on topics from agriculture to zoology, and from all types of information providers, foreign and domestic, reputable and crank. The library metaphor highlights the role of the Web in providing access to information, literally limitless quantities of it, hidden in nooks and crannies of vaults located all over the globe. The metaphor also supports the expectation that information on the Internet is free—as are books from public libraries—and that one's reading habits are a private affair.


But as with all metaphors, the Web as library hides some important differences from a real (or physical) library. Unfortunately, as has become obvious to all who surf the Web, the information contained on Web sites can be faulty and may not have gone through the usual editorial or peer-reviewed processes of formal publishers. And it is also true that the Web library can harbor some pretty unsavory characters, although they have been found in regular libraries as well.


As educators know, they must first carefully screen information found on the Web before bringing it into class or directing a student to a Web site. The library of the Web contains dreck and dribble as well as prose to lift the spirits and enlighten the understanding. And yet the challenge for educators—as it has always been—is to help students evaluate information for validity and its source for reliability.


SURFING


“Surfing the Web” became a popular descriptor early on for common usage of the Web. It is a metaphor that implies both a happy and fun occupation, one where balance, strategy, and the ability to “read” a wave makes a big difference to the success of the surfer. To the accomplished Web surfer, it is the ability to go from site to site (and site to site), looking for and reading the site for the information needed, and yet all the while keeping one's balance or orientation in the complicated, multilayered world of Web site construction.


If any metaphor has a poor connotation for education, it is probably the surfing metaphor. Surfing is an activity that is done on the surface of the ocean and may imply a lack of depth in the eyes of its crtitics, either a depth of understanding or a depth of knowledge. It is associated with a surfing culture that values surfing over other, more adult responsibilities and rejects elements of mainstream culture and values. The metaphor may well capture the Web addict's ability to garner information from all sorts of sites, but without the ability to analyze or synthesize the bits of information into a deeper or more coherent view. On a more positive note, the surfing metaphor accentuates an aspect of Web activity that is especially trying: surfing requires much paddling to get to the proper place, long waits, and sometimes, very brief rides on a middling wave. On the other hand, surfing is a particularly challenging skill requiring coordination, balance, and an ability to “read” the environment for a suitable wave to ride. In any case, people enjoy this metaphor and use it perhaps because it draws upon a sport that has connotations with fun, sun, and summer days.


COMMUNICATION


We often speak of the Web as a communication tool, a combination of the metaphors “delivery truck” and “information highway.” E-mail is not only a container for our thoughts and feelings; it follows a path that connects two members of a family or two friends, enabling communication to occur, or not, depending on our ability to express ourselves in that old technology, writing.


If early users of computers and the Web tended to emphasize the ability of such tools to provide visual information, its first real success came from its less-exotic use as a simple communications tool using linear, written messages. This is both ironic and understandable, the irony deriving from the simple use made of such a flexible technology, but perfectly understandable in terms of its appeal to our basic need to communicate with one another. Not surprisingly, one of the predominant uses of the Internet and the Web in education is for communication: e-mail between students, among parents and teachers, between teachers and other resources, and among students in different locations pursuing joint educational or research projects. E-mail is a simple tool and deceptively unremarkable, and yet powerful in its implications for learning. The human need for communication explains the rapid proliferation of e-mail use throughout K-12 and higher education.


At its core, online learning—whether at a distance or on-campus—depends upon communication and perhaps is communication, in its simplest form. This includes the communication of student with the chosen content (if we may be granted the linguistic anthropomorphism that content can “speak”), student with student, and student with teacher. Harasim (quoted in Shell 1995, 1) notes that “we naturally gravitate towards media that enable us to communicate and form communities because that, in fact, makes us more human.” And given the importance of communication in the operation of all parts of society—business, government, and even education—it is easy to see why the Internet was rapidly adopted, becoming an essential requirement for each segment of our world.


The metaphor that these technologies are about communication makes the application to learning—which is also about communication—an obvious and inevitable step. To the extent that this metaphor works to illuminate why we use the Web in distance education, that use becomes pervasive and our choices less questionable. But if there is a hidden element of the metaphor, it may well be the focus on the positive sides of communication (and the way e-mail keeps us in touch with distant friends or family) to the exclusion of recognizing the growing junk e-mail that crowds our electronic inboxes.


The next three metaphors represent allures or aspects of the Web that have increased the likeliness of it being applied to education and attractive to students. Whether it is time, virtuality, or cyberspace, these metaphors draw students to Web-based learning, for good or ill.


TIME


The relationship of time to the existing metaphors about the Web or online learning may not be obvious, but it is crucial to understanding the reasons for the rapid acceptance and growth of online forms of education experienced in the past decade. And that growth has been phenomenal. From fall 1995 to academic year 1997-98, the number of courses and degree or certificate programs available online doubled—from 25,730 to 52,270 courses and from 860 to 1,520 programs—and student enrollments also doubled, from 753,640 to 1.6 million enrollments (National Center for Education Statistics 1999). The credit for such growth has been attributed to a number of reasons, but perhaps the most important of these is time, the increased time demands of adults who need additional education but are already working full-time and dealing with family and community obligations. This pressure—to further an education but to do so within the limits of a constrained resource—has also been described as the search for convenience, which combines the need for education to occur at a good time for the student with the need for it to take place near the student's home or place of residence (which recognizes the importance of saving time by avoiding the commute to a campus). In other words, the pursuit of convenience in an education is, in part, a recognition of the importance of time.


“Time is a resource” is a structural metaphor (Lakoff and Johnson 1980) that is grounded in personal and collective experiences and makes time a substance that is quantifiable, assigned a value, and used up (65). This is an especially influential metaphor, one that is found throughout education as in seat time, contact hours and credit hours, time-on-task, just-in-time training, or the “teachable moment.” For online learning, we use technology to create courses, learning units, and discussions that are synchronous (occurring at the same time) and asynchronous (occurring at different times), the latter gaining in popularity as a result of educators' recognition that students' jobs and other obligations on their time make meeting at the same time impractical, if not impossible.


If this recognition is no more than bowing to the inevitable reality of students' time-constrained lives, are our metaphors that deal with time unimportant for online learning? Certainly not. First of all, this attention to students' time obligations is a recognition—overdue, some would say—that higher education acknowledges that the time of students is important. The metaphor of “time is a resource” as applied to students may be partially responsible for encouraging institutions to develop online services such as registration, application, and library access so that students can perform these functions from home or work and avoid the time and effort spent in driving to campus or taking time off from work to do these tasks during normal working hours. Not only is time a resource, but it is a resource that can be controlled by students logging on to the class when it is convenient for them.


Second, time remains a valuable resource that—at times—cannot be managed for efficiency. For despite society's traditional use of technology to “seduce us to think we have no choice but to save a moment here, save an hour there, and so, finally to be happy” (Cousineau 2002, 75), we cannot speed up certain processes such as learning. Learning trigonometry or differential equations may just require a certain amount of time to learn the concepts and apply them; therefore, taking less time (e.g., shorter terms) will not be a boon to some students, who require both processing time and reflection to ensure the concepts take root. Be assured, this is not a plea to excuse inefficiencies in the use of classroom time or a school day, but to recognize that always using time efficiently may not be good for learning for all students. Unfortunately, this recognition only underscores the problems teachers face every day: what to do with students who learn at different rates. Perhaps all we can conclude is that the “time is a resource” metaphor may have a negative effect on our beliefs of how to conduct education and that this may be damaging to some students. It may be sufficient to remember the educational corollary to the following: “quality [is] an inverted pull away from speed” (Cousineau 2001, 76), where speeding up some learning processes only makes it more difficult or impossible for some students to learn.


A third and less consequential perception of time as it affects online learning is the growing expectation that online functions be instantaneous. It is a curious, and sometimes entertaining, aspect of watching people work online that we presume—because many times our Internet service works at lightning speed and is immediately accessible and reliable—that it should always do so. The slow reaction time, the loading of software that takes a minute or so, can make some online denizens scream with impatience. This may be a result of the emphasis on speed and making the best use of the time in our busy lives, but it also belies our need to control time. This has its humorous moments when frustration erupts at a split-second delay or we are left bereft and confused at what to do when a network goes “down.” More than one worker wonders what to do when e-mail and the Internet are unavailable and questions how a task should be approached when only earlier technologies—say, the phone—can be used.


A fourth way to conceive of time on the Web is to compare it to other experiences of time. Birkerts (1994) associates Web time with nowness, an immediacy of experience that must necessarily be different from—and eliminates—the deep time created by reading, which is an inwardness of experience where time “is essentially characterized by our obliviousness to it” (193). If this characterization of time is accurate, then individuals formed by Web time—the “nowness” of instant messaging and “immediacy” of virtual cams—will be different from those who conceive of time quite differently, and this is another reason why the next generation of learners may well be very different from earlier generations of students.


VIRTUAL


There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that in the earliest days of what eventually became known as the Western Governors University, a governor objected to the proposed name of “Western Virtual University,” because virtual meant it was not real. And since the governors were set on creating something that was very real, “virtual” was dropped and WGU was born. This belief that what is virtual is not real besets much of distance education and creates for it an extra hurdle to overcome to gain acceptance and understanding.


Clearly, the definition of “virtual” is “existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact,” but the emerging popular usage could be from its other definitions, “existing in the mind” or “created, simulated, or carried on by means of a computer” (Picket 2000). Over time, “virtual” has been applied to things that really do exist, and thus the common usage of the term. However, to the extent that the older or select definition is held by an individual, online learning will continue to suffer credibility problems, and critics will complain that online experiences cannot create real learning.


And yet something that is virtual may well be a good analogue for another quality of the Web, that is, its imperfection. Imperfection isn't a flaw, it is a “design decision,” allowing the Web to “grow rapidly and host innovations” (Weinberger 2002, 79). Because problems happen in the real world, including cut cables and power outages, the Web routes around these problems and thereby continues to work. It is its imperfection, its brokenness, that allows the Web to work so well, which may make it a good candidate for both the virtual and real worlds.


Birkerts (1994) has an additional thought about the falseness of virtual things. He posits that the aura of a thing—its presence and uniqueness—is different if the painting is an original or a copy, even if the copy is nearly identical. This means there will be a difference between “real” and “virtual” experiences. And therefore, there is a strong connection between the two perceptions of what is virtual: In either case, what is virtual is neither real nor the same as the true experience (assuming, of course, that the experience being copied is not a copy of an earlier experience). This use of the metaphor, understood in this fashion, does not bode well for the acceptability of distance education.


CYBERSPACE


Barbules and Callister (2000) call the Internet a “working space within which knowledge can be co-constructed, negotiated, and revised over time ... where communities of inquiry can grow and thrive” (276). Cyberspace is an ontological metaphor that treats the term as if it were an entity (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 25) or a container that can host information, enable group chats and/or discussions, and be available for individuals to co-construct knowledge and build community. This, then, is a powerful metaphor, and one that has created a concept that operates like a real physical place or space and whose future uses (and the implications of those uses) can only be guessed at.


Weinberger (2002, 33-35) talks of the Web as a space without distance, a two-dimensional environment that provides us with an illusion of space that we experience as “fundamentally spatial.” We travel through this space—cyberspace—to reach new sites. And because the Web is basically an environment where people meet, it feels more like a place than a space. Weinberger (2002, 45, 163) thinks of Web space as “not a container waiting to be filled; it is more like a book that's being written” with words being the “stuff of the web.”


Here are some examples of how this metaphor has already taken hold of our language. In our software applications, metaphors of the “desktop,” “files,” and “trash” have been translated from the business and office world to apply to similar applications on our personal computers. In online discussions or listservs, some members “lurk” as if in the metaphorical shadows, watching the action but not participating. Others “pounce” or “flame” which gives us a visual image of an action (the cat pouncing on its prey, a flamethrower wielded by an army commando) that gives us a physical action that fills the perceptual space as well.


If there is a downside to thinking of cyberspace as a real type of place, it is in forgetting that cyber places may not have all of the qualities of real places. For example, a real, physical room has physical limits, limits known as walls, that hem in our visual perceptions and block out noise and harmful substances. Cyberspace has no limits, and perhaps no ability to protect us from harmful influences. And yet it is cyberspace's limitlessness—its almost infinite capacity—that is its attraction, even if we cannot always understand what infinity is or what it may mean to our sense of ourselves in the world, our perceptions and real-world experiences, or our consciousness of reality and potentiality. Birkerts (1994), ever the critic, posits that this new sense of space must create a new human consciousness, one based on “no place” at all (193). It is not clear if this is a consciousness that is independent of geography or a particular home or house, although the idea is an intriguing one. These are some of the unknowns that can transpire when a new metaphor takes hold of our concepts, with implications that are unclear for our futures and have not yet fully taken hold in our imaginations and beliefs.


The next two sections focus on major metaphors—information is education and the distance in distance education—that influence perceptions of distance education as well as its attractiveness to different publics. These metaphors may not draw upon the technology aspects of distance education and thus may be less popular, but they are no less powerful in their ability to shape our understanding and expectations.


INFORMATION IS EDUCATION


One consistent thread throughout the previous discussions has been an inadvertent mistake resulting from the metaphor that acquiring information is the goal and purpose of education. This is not a novel insight; many legislators and businesspeople seem to assume that gathering and using information is the main purpose of an education or that the content of education is synonymous with information. What is novel is asking whether this mistaking of information for education is not partially—or unconsciously—a result of the metaphors we have chosen to use. By popularizing the Information Highway, the concept of the Web as a giant library filled with information, and the Internet as a truck that delivers discrete informational packages to a destination, our metaphors may have predisposed some to think of education as solely or predominantly the securing of information. The result of such a presumption is that if information can be gathered on or through the Internet, then schools and colleges are not as necessary as once thought.


The emphasis on the information metaphor certainly has a number of advantages. It has increased the public's understanding and use of the Internet, its tolerance of the Internet's vagaries (such as long waiting times and sometime dangers), and its willingness to pay the cost of bringing it to schools and homes. Business and government officials increased their acceptance of the Internet as a way to operate and also funded the expensive infrastructure to make it possible, perhaps as a result of the information metaphor. And it may surely be true that this particular metaphor gained its power because “information” was understandable and easily grasped, when the term “education” was more opaque, inconsistent in its practices and effects, and under the purview of select professionals.


But what is lost or hidden by the “information is education” metaphor? Brown and Duguid (2000) noted that “attending too closely to information overlooks the social context that helps people understand what that information might mean and why it matters” (5). In other words, the “central focus [on information] inevitably pushes aside all of the fuzzy stuff that lies around the edges—context, background, history, common knowledge, social resources” (2). And it is the loss of the “fuzzy stuff” that may spell disaster for individuals receiving information as a substitute for education.


It is with context that information acquires relevance for people and the appellation of “knowledge.” Brown and Duguid (2000) claim that the “shift toward knowledge may (or should) represent a shift toward people,” because people are needed to “assimilate, understand, and make sense of information” (120-21). But people make very different interpretations of information and can, when presented with exactly the same information, produce different knowledge. This variability is echoed by Shanor (1999), who notes that much as in quantum physics, “information can change depending on the observer” (19). This may be an uncomfortable concept for those who believe in firm truths. Furthermore, the transfer of knowledge from one person to the next is fraught with difficulties, resulting—partially at least—from variability in student backgrounds, in the other knowledge they possess, and in the different contexts in which they find themselves.


This situation is particularly disturbing since the focus on the acquisition of information enables a shift in the assessment of discrete outcomes, that is, the bits of information a society values. With information at the heart of education, we have created a situation where individual interpretations of information may not be valued, knowledge is too difficult to ensure or assess, and the outcomes identified and rewarded may be unrelated to the student's needs. And yet because the information may be assessed in an objective fashion, we feel assured that education is occurring, and efficiently as well.


In their discussion of a special type of metaphor, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) describe the ontological metaphor as a particularly influential way of describing our personal experiences in terms of physical objects, such as containers. Just as our bodies are experienced as containers for our selves, our categories often put experiences or ideas in conceptual containers to ease communication and understanding. The container type of metaphor may be especially enlightening as it captures the relationship of information to its container, an education. It may be this implicit relationship that makes the metaphor both acceptable and understandable and explains its power in society's perceptions and general discourse. If this supposition is true, and it makes sense that it is, then changing this metaphor in the minds of legislators and parents will take more than a few public service announcements and the isolated pronouncements of educational professionals speaking largely to themselves. It will take a large-scale and sustained educational effort.


Perhaps the power of the “information is education” metaphor may also be a result of its appeal of technical rationality. Schon (1987) describes technical rationality as an “epistemology of practice derived from positivist philosophy ... practitioners are instrumental problem solvers who select technical means best suited to particular purposes” (3). How much easier education would be if it were a technical process of presenting information and testing for its recall. And how much simpler education would be if it were the pursuit of information, available by searching the Web.


In any case, the information is education metaphor has widespread implications for both distance education and education as a whole and could explain the public's regard for its practitioners and legislators' efforts at reform. In any case, changing this damaging metaphor will require the time and attention of many professionals. Less damaging, perhaps, but as illuminating of some individuals' disregard for distance education is the focus on distance as a metaphor for the educational process.


THE DISTANCE OF DISTANCE EDUCATION


The implied metaphor for distance education is difference: not the same as education, and therefore, presumably not as good in some eyes. Keegan (1990) generated three hypotheses about distance education that capture how some view it to be different from regular education. First, the separation of teaching acts and learning acts causes “weak integration” of students into the institution; second, this separation weakens interpersonal communication between teacher and student; and third, this separation causes distance education to be nontraditional and therefore, doubtful of gaining “full academic acceptance” (331). Certainly, the sense of separation has created a perception of a lack of connection that plagues distance education to this day. Not surprisingly, much research that has been done (Meyer, 2002) has been specifically directed to ascertain whether and to what extent online students connect to material, other students, and faculty. And despite the rather positive evidence, the perception of separation persists.


In this view, distance education, whether delivered by satellite, interactive video, or the Web, is different from a real education. Indeed, distance education has been isolated in many higher education institutions away from the disciplinary departments, with its own organizational structure, funding stream, and student services. This perception of difference is common, despite the existence of the same teachers, texts, exercises, questions and answers, class discussions, assignments, and grades in both distance and on-campus classes. However, the difference is not just that students and teachers may be separated by some space or distance (although current students of distance education are often found in residence on college campuses, taking a distance course from their dorm rooms to fill out a schedule or to take a needed course at a time convenient to the student). The difference may be largely a metaphorical one, a distance between teacher and student that is personal and perceptual, a gap between lesson given and learning documented, a gulf between teacher's performance and the student's response. These are not unimportant differences, but they are differences as perceived by teachers and reflect changes wrought in their roles and expectations by the new technology (Jaffee 1998).


The parallel perception that the Web or the Internet is different from the normal, day-to-day world is an interesting one. This takes the form of expecting the Web to be more pristine than a neighborhood, although in reality it is inhabited by the same people. Was this expectation the result of seeing the Internet as a new invention, adopted largely by the educated (at first), or because it was different? Why, if pornography, crime, and predators exist in the real world, would we not expect them to exist on the Web? Why are we surprised to find the Web to be the same as our other world, unless there was a metaphor at work to imply that the Internet was different? In other words, the metaphor of difference may be implied, but it sets up expectations that the Internet will be a fundamentally different experience, peopled with different sorts of people, where different activities are possible. Researchers into online learning have yet to prove these assumptions to be true in all cases.


Unfortunately, the continued popularity of the metaphor of distance education has focused attention on the technology used and the differences from traditional education. Despite attempts by professionals in the field to coin alternative terms that would highlight other aspects—such as technology-mediated education and e-learning—neither has caught on to a great extent. (However, both terms include a reference to technology, which continues the perception that education using technology may need its own, separate term).


What has been missed by the use of “distance education” (and the other terms as well) is the focus on one means of education (and the technology used) and not on the pedagogical and instructional techniques used. As noted earlier, research by Clark (1994) and Kozma (1994a, 1994b), among many others, has concluded that the technology has little (or no) impact on student learning separate from the instructional design imbedded in the course. And this applies whether the course is entirely distance or it is on-campus and using the Web to augment instruction. Given the multimodal flexibility of the Web, it can deliver lectures, programmed instruction, rich environments, asynchronous threaded discussions, synchronous chats, and real-time assessments. This means that choices made by the instructor on how to use these functions to conduct a course will be more telling on student learning than the technology itself. Changing our focus to making thoughtful decisions about pedagogy may be an inadvertent—but long overdue—benefit of using the Web in instruction.


The use of distance education as a descriptor for a different type of education also precludes asking whether student learning is the same or whether the experience is the same for all students. While many comparison studies use end-of-course tests or grades to capture student learning, these measures do not capture all that is learned. Fortunately, some studies have begun to differentiate student experiences in online courses, implying that certain student types (based on the Myers-Briggs Typology Inventory or similar test) do better in the online world than others (e.g., Diaz and Bontenbal 2001; Dziuban, Moskal, and Dziuban 2000). This is no different than commenting that students with aural learning preference do better in classrooms that make greater use of lectures. The issue is not whether a particular form is or is not perfect for everyone, but whether we are focusing on the right questions.


Having tools to use does not preclude us from having to grapple with essential questions about what makes an educated person, what that person will need to successfully navigate an uncertain (and different) future, and how to accomplish this end. This may be the essential discussion that is missed by overly focusing on distance education and having a metaphor of difference dominate our discussions of education.


Besides, it may be that after many more years of researching, discussing, and propounding on the differences implied in the metaphor of distance education, we will conclude, as Brown and Johnson-Shull (2000) did, that “good teaching is good teaching.” In time, we may finally be comfortable dropping the term “distance education” and just speak of what occurs online or in the classroom as education.


CAUTIONARY TALES AND METAPHORS FOR DISTANCE EDUCATION


This long discussion about metaphors as they affect distance and online education should make us wonder if there are other metaphors that could shed light on whether distance education can substitute for other kinds of education. The question is a fair one, and it uncovers perceptions that are influenced by the metaphors of balance and experience.


BALANCE


It may be an American trait to assume that if one aspirin is good for you, a handful is even better. This is the mistake of believing that if some of something is good, then more is better, and—if taken to extreme—all is best. Parents push mere toddlers to use computers, school districts are developing virtual high schools, and universities offer “all online” college degree programs. In and of themselves, there is probably nothing wrong with any of these developments, except in the assumption that all is better than some. In our enthusiasms, we often forget the cautionary advice “All things in moderation.”


Even were an individual to receive his or her entire education through distance education or virtual schools of some kind, we could not assume that these would be his or her sole life experiences. The worry that an online degree program will affect an adult in some fashion ignores that adult's multitude of other experiences: a job, home and family, community obligations, and all of life's normal interactions with neighbors, grocery clerks, telemarketers, and other service providers. In other words, the expectation that all of an education—let alone all of life's experiences—will be from the online world is misleading hyperbole. And yet even were this possible, any sensible educator would want to see a balance of experiences (online and face-to-face), just as we expect students to benefit from experiencing the arts and humanities, sciences and athletics, speaking and listening, reading and writing. In other words, balance is an appropriate goal for those who design educational experiences, but we need not always assume (and this is true especially for the adult learner) that the balance must be achieved solely within the educational program itself.


Another concern is the predilection to demonize one form of education while granting perfection to another. O'Donnell (1998) captures how such a stance cannot withstand careful inspection when he states, Technology can be humanizing and distancing. But we need to be more honest with ourselves in higher education than we customarily are about the quality of teaching right now. Too much of what transpires in higher education ... is already dehumanizing and distancing. (155)


Obviously, seeing only good in one situation and evil in another is unreasonable, and most of us probably recognize the underlying fear and/or misunderstandings that fuel these greatly disparate (and disparaging) opinions. We can “cherish the dialogue and face-to-face communications without dispraising other forms and other media” (O'Donnell 1998, 22), which is another way of saying that a more temperate view can be wiser and more healthy than an immoderate one.


EXPERIENCE


While online education is a boon to those who may never be able to travel to a foreign land, visit a historical monument, or research a new topic that cannot be covered in a local library collection, it may never achieve the status of being a true replacement for the actual experience. Certainly, using computer simulations for potentially dangerous chemical demonstrations or creating virtual worlds that would be impossible to see or test in real life is a plus for student learning. Online discussions seem to achieve some of the intellectual stimulation of classroom discussions, with the added plus of encouraging more equitable contributions from all students.


However, the online simulation may be no substitute for some real experiences, whether we are considering foreign travel or deep interpersonal relationships. The point is not just to try to achieve balance in our online experiences, but that some experiences must be had in the real, face-to-face, unmediated world. “We cannot take anyone else's word for matters of the heart, concerns of the soul. These things we must experience for ourselves” (Cousineau 2001, 191).


Or as Chickering and Gamson (1987) put it, “Learning is not a spectator sport” (6). It is not something to partake in from the sidelines, rooting for the players, and leaving having barely exercised one's mind.


CONCLUSION


This discussion on metaphors should make us more aware of how the hidden meanings and implied associations of our metaphors affect our attitudes and beliefs about online and distance education. We can no longer be blind to the role of metaphor to focus on one aspect to the exclusion of others that helps to create a focus on technology's potential or harm exclusively. The familiar has been made conscious, and hopefully, we are less likely to let our metaphors rule our beliefs unquestioned. We will wonder what each metaphor hides and ask what it does not address. We will understand what attracts us to a particularly apt or playful metaphor but be aware that it can also obfuscate or mislead us. We can delight in language, but not let that delight cloud our judgment. We will ask for evidence to the contrary and allow it to shape our beliefs.


With an appreciation for metaphors, we can be less controlled by language that dictates our understandings and molds our perceptions and choose to use other metaphors (or at minimum, we will not be captive to our metaphorical language). We can command our metaphors and not let this tool of perception and understanding dictate the views of its user. We can be more aware of the source of others' misperceptions, the metaphors that control their beliefs, and be better able to understand their unquestioned attitudes (and appreciate how difficult it may be to change those beliefs). And finally, we can know that while changing perceptions is difficult, it is not impossible. A good start is changing your chosen metaphor or at least making the metaphor give up its hidden secrets.


Changing perceptions begins with a consciousness of how language creates reality. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) proposed, new metaphors encourage the creation of new concepts, which fundamentally influence the development of a new reality (145). What if the term “distance education,” with its implied differences from regular education, were to drop from use? What if “distance education” evolved into just plain “education?” Would not this imply the creation of a new reality, a new conceptualization that education occurs through a variety of means, at all times personal, technological, and pedagogical? Such a reality would help us focus our attention on what was learned or what should be learned in order for students to succeed in a world we can barely imagine from our present metaphors. Such a reality might indicate that we had overcome the limitations of our current metaphors and freed ourselves from their grasp.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 8, 2005, p. 1601-1625
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