I concur with almost everything my distance learning (DL) colleagues write about this mode of study. In this post, I want to add to that literature and start by elaborating on the classic slogan in distance-learning marketing: ‘study when you want, where you want’. Nearly every university with a distance-learning program employs this line, in one way or another. Personally, I think this slogan grossly misrepresents the reality of distance-learning; I find it even insulting. The words ‘when you want’, for example, emphasize comfort not merit and discipline. The words ‘where you want’ seem to appeal to people who like traveling or find universities dull places to hang out – or just imagine a degree is achievable while lying on the couch. And indeed, in marketing the DL programs, universities go to great lengths to describe distance learning as convenient and comfortable – the easy road to a degree. That slogan implies that independent of work or family commitments, a living-life-to-the-fullest lifestyle and a don’t-want-to-sacrifice-anything attitude are no obstacles to get a degree and land a well-paid job. The problem is, as every distance learner fresh(wo)man knows, actual studying at a distance is anything but ‘where you want, when you want’, rather it is ‘you must study when you can, wherever possible’.
I have to intention to discredit distance learning. To the contrary; it opens and democratizes higher education and the university as an institution. Distance learning, in fact, breaks up the incestuos intellectual self-affirmation and elitist tendencies, especially the academic ‘superstars’ (every discipline knows them), still indulge in. (Although much still has to be done, the field of International Relations is on a good path – unlike established professors in other fields, many IR scholars actually demand their students to question power relations in the university.) Anyway, distance learning reforms education by bringing in practical experience; it re-connects theory and praxis and thus contributes to make higher education relevant to society again – not just for a few who demand superior positions by virtue of degree. If properly acknowledged (a problem I soon take up) distance-learning benefits society probably more than campus study. I think universities should emphasize those aspects more, instead of appealing to the slack in us. Distance learners seldom have the comfort of a structured timetable, with lectures at specific times and needed distraction, even discussions, after long and complicated sessions. The world-famous and well documented reading and debating sessions that take place every weekend night in the student dormitories on campuses all over the world are also off-limits, as there’s always a looming deadline to be reconciled with other commitments. I hope universities are coming clean on the realities of distance-learning. This blogging initiative is a very good start. I also hope DL gets more credit in the HR departments and on management levels than hitherto.