beckster's bio

Writing Environments

"Our increasing use of technology has changed our reading and writing practices. This townhall focuses on those changes engendered by technology. How have the multiple forms of electronic texts changed our understanding of composing? By what processes are we building these understandings into our writing instruction? Portfolios, hypertext, synchronous and asynchronous communal texts, and 'the database essay' all have a place in this discussion."
Michael Day -
Dene Grigar -
Johndan Johnson-Eilola -
Jim Kalmbach -
Becky Rickly -
Paul Taylor -

Becky Rickly – "Minding the Gaps: Re-Assessing Teaching in Distance Education to Meet the Changing Needs of Our Students"

Distance Education (DE) has many faces. It can be a process by which students snail mail writing to an instructor, who grades it and snail mails it back; it can be streaming video where a face-to-face (f2f) classroom is "joined" by people at other institutions or at other locations; it can be an integrated technological approach using various web-based applications so that students can interact both synchronously and asynchronously; and it can be any combination of the above, and then some. Similarly, the audiences for DE can vary, too: they can be local, students in the institution who merely don't want to go to class; yet they can be disparate and global, too. The traditional (f2f) classroom can be varied, too; teachers must acknowledge several "gaps" in learning and communication style as they plan and deliver curriculum. These gaps are unknowns in terms of how people learn, how they process information, and how they communicate. It is by identifying these gaps and then by addressing them in course content, in delivery, and in the establishment and assessment of deliverables that teachers are successful. Some of these gaps are visible–age, gender, ethnic origin, and, to a lesser extent, socio-economic status–but others reside below the surface: learning style, personality preference, gender identification, past experiences, and so forth. What I'd like to argue here is that those teaching at a distance must, like their f2f counterparts, take care to identify the gaps, then take steps to "mind" them in how they construct, deliver, and assess learning at a distance.
          As virtual spaces become increasingly populated by those traditionally bound to a more familiar physical spaces–in particular, by teachers and students in academe–we need to become more aware of how the medium not only affects the message, but how the cognitive space of delivery affects how learning occurs. This point becomes even more important as we recognize that more and more these virtual spaces are being populated by work teams collaborating both in-house and at a distance; it is imperative, then, that teachers become not only comfortable but proficient at teaching at a distance, and that students become proficient at working, thinking, and communicating at a distance. Because these teams (much like the DE courses themselves) are usually made up of a variety of different people with different goals–for instance, subject matter experts, supervisors, production staff, as well as writers and editors–each with a different cognitive style and cultural background, the ability to communicate effectively in these virtual spaces (as well as the more familiar physical spaces) is necessary. Successful communication depends on how well we understand and navigate these spaces, how well each individual "minds the gap(s)".
          Yet "gaps" aren't always bad. For instance, the gap between the London underground and the common platform is necessary so that the trains don't hit the sides of the platform. In order for the trains to run smoothly, those who wish to ride them must "mind" these physical gaps (and they are warned to do so frequently). Thus, the gaps continue to exist while passengers who mind them enter and exit safely. It simply wouldn't be cost-effective to provide a ramp, for example, so that passengers didn't HAVE to mind the gap. So perhaps we should take these situations to heart as we identify and analyze the "gaps" that occur in DE; they may not all be gaps that NEED to be addressed for the participants to safely and effectively navigate the course. In fact, I would argue that some gaps are a necessary component to change and growth, for it is the anxiety and conflict which often accompanies the recognition of a "gap" that precedes growth and development. So how do we know when to "mind" the gaps, when to fix or bridge them, or when to simply let them be in DE?
          Using a successful distance MA program in Technical Communication as my primary example (as well as information gathered from DE participants concerning their own work habits), I would like to explore how teachers (and students) in DE courses might reduce or at least minimize gaps by examining the cognitive spaces of knowledge-making and communication. Cognitive space might include personality, gender, societal values, and learning styles, all of which impact communication. But cognitive spaces might also be related to the physical space that each participant resides/works in, and this might include the temperature, the lighting, color scheme, physical proximity, body language, textures, feng shui, and "flow," all of which impacts communication. Finally, the virtual spaces that students and teachers work in also affect learning, and these might include technologically enabled spaces such as notes, PDAs, cell phones, data bases, web-based environments, allowing for various levels of interactivity, as well as ease of use, "transparency," and speed, again all of which impacts communication. If, in fact, online education extends rather than bridges gaps that exist in the f2f classroom (as well as introduces new ones), how can we best foster online praxis that will help both teachers and students navigate these spaces successfully? I maintain that it is only by examining each of these spaces individually and then in a complex overlay, and then by identifying gaps that might affect teaching and learning, will we better understand how space affects communication in DE, particularly in terms of knowledge-making/sharing, team building, and goal-based communicative activities.

Some specific questions to think about:

  • How can we establish and maintain communal fellowship among disparate DE participants?
  • What particular media is appropriate–indeed, best–for different courses/audiences?
  • How do we go from a "knowledge hoarding" model to a "knowledge management" model of DE?
  • What do we do with new forms of representation: visual literacies, single sourcing, database driven documents, tacit knowledge, etc.?
  • How might we partner more effectively with those who would benefit (and from whom WE would benefit, in a "cooperative" relationship)?