The Second Turkish International Distance Education Symposium

A Personal Perspective

by David Davenport

Having attended and thoroughly enjoyed the first symposium held in Nov. 1995, I was looking forward to this event. This year, unfortunately, it came at a bad time for me personally, being the last week of our semester, with exams and projects all demanding attention. Consequently, I was unable to attend all of the talks I would have liked to or to spend additional time just talking to people. Despite the rush, however, I did enjoy the symposium enormously and found it both thought provoking and valuable. In the following paragraphs, I will review some of the main talks and reflect on some of the themes that I saw emerging during the week. I still have some photos to come, so I may add to this page in a week or so.
The symposium proper, began with a keynote address by Sir John Daniel, Vice Chancellor of the UK’s Open University. Sir John started by noting how surprised he was, while researching his book on the Mega-Universities, to learn that Turkey had one of the largest distance education universities in the world, with over half a million students enrolled.
He went on to say that, unfortunately, distance education has a reputation rather akin to refugee camps: cheap and can be lived in, but nobody really wants to! Attitudes towards DE are changing, however, in part because there are now several examples of distance learning institutions with excellent reputations. Indeed, the UK’s Open University is one of the best such examples, as Sir John went on to explain. By practically every measure, the O.U. is a huge success, the key to which is quality. Quality results from having teams of specialists collaborate in the production of the courses, working within a research environment, having effective logistics and, perhaps most significantly, close personal support of students. A good indication of the latter is the fact that the O.U. employs around 7500 tutors to look after its 120,000+ students, that’s approximately 1 tutor per 20 students!

Sir John Daniel

In the second half of his talk, Sir John looked at the effects information technology might have on education. He concluded his address by reminding us that universities were communities of people and by stating that the root to success was to focus on learning not teaching.

Michael Moore

Subsequent talks picked up and developed many of the points Sir John raised. Michael Moore, head of the American Center for the Study of Distance Education, noted growing problems in higher education: falling standards, increased student numbers, severe financial constraints and the growing irrelevance of the curriculum. He pointed to the role of technology and, in particular, to the Internet, as offering solutions, however, he stressed the importance of simpler technologies in less well off countries! Michael went on to suggest that it was the educational systems that were important, not the institution. Thus, the state need not set up an expensive centralised DE institution, but simply organise experts in existing establishments to achieve the same effect. He indicated that, traditionally, teaching has been organised as a craft. A single teacher is generally responsible for every aspect of a course, however, with increasing numbers of students it becomes an impossible task. The answer is to reorganise, to employ professionals to prepare courses centrally, but to provide decentralised (and hence close local) support for learners.
Chere Gibson from the University of Wisconsin noted that "access does not equal support." In distance education, learner support is critical, she said. You must find out about your students, know their backgrounds and their expectations. You must provide them with services, educational and administrative, and make sure they know what you expect of them. Of course, support is expensive, so some form of cost/benefit analysis is desirable! John Petit from the UK's Open University also emphasized student support. He drew the analogy of learning to swim - where the learner clearly requires some help! He offered two more inequalities, "books + literacy do not equal learning" and "computers + connected students do not equal learning" The missing ingredient in each case being student support in all its forms. Chere Gibson

Susan Clayton Susan Clayton, again from the British O.U., said that there was a danger of overemphasis on technology, often at the expense of pedagogic, social, political and economic considerations. Distance education, she claimed, was too often still just talking heads. Again, noting that student centered support is vital, she pointed out that while it is easy for educational material to cross borders (in the form of books, TV, Internet, etc.), support cannot.
Tony Bates showed examples of distance education courses produced at the University of British Columbia. He explained that there was money to be made from such Virtual Universities. By carefully looking at the demand and hiring teachers internationally, they were able to provide quality education and make a 15% profit!

Tony Bates

Another example of distance education in action was provided by Gordon Davies who heads the Computer Science department of the O.U. Their latest introductory course (M206 Computing: An Object-Oriented Approach) has over 5000 students enrolled. Content is delivered via books, interactive CDROM, the Internet and television broadcasts. Students are required to have computers, electronic communication being used for assignment submission, tutoring and groupwork.

David Jonassen

Engaging learners was the subject of David Jonassen's keynote presentation. For me, this was undoubtedly the highlight of the symposium. Pointing to the weaknesses of distance (and traditional?) education, he suggested that we should throw out the very concept of a curriculum. Most education has no clear purpose (other than to pass the exam), it is often abstract, irrelevant and involves limited or no interactivity. The result is inert knowledge (and students!), a lack of transferable skills and an intolerance to ambiguous learning situations; a sort of learned helplessness. According to David, meaningful learning occurs when learners solve problems in context, when they are perturbed by a question or when something unexpected occurs. Meaning is socially negotiated and we should be trying to design and build learning environments that take advantage this idea. He showed several examples, claiming that experimental results indicate major improvements in student uptake, in contrast to the "no significant difference" common in conventionally designed educational systems.

Brian Kenworthy, from the University of South Australia, spoke about the effects that the changing economic, technology and job climate, would have on education. He suggested that there were profound transformations in train for universities. Major media and communications companies will establish their own educational enterprises. Prestigious universities might join up with such commercial enterprises and, perhaps, begin franchised operations around the world, pushing out all but the very best. Faced with such threats, then, traditional universities will be forced to make general improvements or risk becoming relics of a bygone age.

Brian Kenworthy

Sally Reynolds

In the final panel, speakers noted again the economic potential of DE and the role of the new information technologies. On the other hand, while these technologies were important, they would not solve all the problems. As Sally Reynolds put it, technology has a rather limited lifetime, investment in people and training usually gives better returns.

I fear I had better stop these ramblings here. I have already gone on longer than I intended, just as I did during my presentation! I apologise to those whose talks I was unable to attend and who have thus been omitted from this review. There were may other interesting presentations and I strongly urge everyone to browse through the online proceedings which contain a wealth on ideas and valuable experience upon which to build.

Finally, I would like to express my thanks, not only to the organisers and personnel of FRTEB who worked so hard to make the symposium run smoothly, but also to all the participants. It was obviously a pleasure to have many of the worlds leading authorities on distance education join us in Ankara, and a special thanks goes to them for taking the time to share their experiences with us. It was also great to see decision-makers from the Ministry of Education taking part, as well as faculty and students from the various universities. Last, but certainly not least, I would like to thank the many schoolteachers who attended the symposium. I met several that had traveled halfway across the country, at their own expense, to listen to the talks. Their enthusiasm and dedication should be a lesson to us all.

Some of the organisers - still smiling!