PeteS's bio

Teaching and Administering Distance Education Practices

"Distance education is no longer the great evil. Many DE techniques and strategies are used in more traditional learning environments. In fact, it is often said that the distance between a lecturer and a student is greater than the distance between teachers and students in DE environments. This is difficult to pull off as a teacher, and even more difficult from the administrative side. There are competing forces at work. Still, we're all on the same time, aren't we?"

Mark Walbert -
Pete Sands -
Judi Kirkpatrick -
Susan Lang -
Joel English -
Trish Harris -
Cynthia Jeney -

Pete Sands – "Hybridity as an Ethical Choice" [i]

The description of this morning's Town Hall says that "Distance Education is no longer the great evil"; I'd like to take a deliberately provocative or devil's advocate position on the matter and advocate "hybrid" or "blended" courses as offering distinct advantages for both students and society over "pure" distance models which pose the threat of homogeneity against the promise of heterogeneity.

In doing so, I'd like to situate my comments in the context of the global reach of U. S. higher education, and its consequent role in globalization and informationalization. [ii] In higher education, "hybrid" [iii] refers to a kind of course in which seat-time is reduced and the work of the course is distributed, with all its attendant senses, in both space and time, through the global computer network. [iv] Ultimately, because the body remains in play, I believe that hybrid forms of education offer a way out of a gnostic [v] error—a belief in the possibility of transcending the body--that lies behind the desire for distance education.

Bricks-and-mortar universities depend on physical/material location and wealth; distance education depends on material wealth but not physical location, operating under a metaphor of transcendence from the physical into the virtual, with a concomitant absence of cultural or other heterogeneity, owing to the near-complete dominance of Western metaphors, language and curricula in virtual space; hybrid models of education offer radical reinscription of the heterogeneous bodies and cultures of the world in a globally connected educational system by embracing both digital and material presence.

Certainly, the long-term prognosis for distance education programs is unclear, but the short term desire of the monied classes that actually run higher education institutions is completely clear: distance education is a means of opening a world market for U.S. educational ventures while possibly restricting world employment in higher education by shifting teaching responsibilities from local to U.S. centers. [vi] It is not a very great leap to surmise that there will be concomitant flattening or lessening of non-U.S. perspectives, histories, and cultures in the rush to standardize and transmit educational content. [vii]

Universities are attracted to networked education but don't necessarily place their responsibilities in terms of the global role of U. S. higher education. As Olu Oguibe, the Nigerian artist and Network theorist says, the Network attracts people who will speak to but also for the Other. [viii] This is something to be negotiated consciously, as Cynthia Selfe reminds us. [ix] We should pay close attention as well to the possibility that universities are attracted to Distance Education because of a false belief in the ability of the Network to transcend the problem of the Body—all those bodies, occupying all that Real Estate—transcend it by making it go away in a million fragments of what was once a common Body, at least figuratively speaking.

If the Web appears to be pushing both students and teachers simultaneously into a shared, public, published space, then we can say that such a push rotates their relationship from a traditionally vertical to a new horizontal axis—not necessarily a bad thing. But if in the distance model, there is only heterogeneity, that would be a bad thing. In the long run, this mashing together and reformulating of traditional relationships in the modern iteration of the ancient university, will require concepts and practices of hybridity and emergence that are both useful for their explanatory power and open to critique, with particular attention to new asymmetries of power that result and to old asymmetries of power that persist.

If, as Lyman Sargent has it, utopianism is "social dreaming," [x] then surely education is itself an expression of utopian desire. And, if so, then distance education must too be a form or expression of utopianism—but what kind? It is a transcendental utopianism which relies on the belief that we can transcend our bodies and their situatedness in time and place in order to learn. But one can never do so, and to make such a claim is to fall into a kind of gnosis, one which presumes that because the body is not present in the classroom, the body is not present. It shifts the time, place, and other material conditions from the symbolically powerful centralized space of the bricks and mortar university into the imagined space of virtuality. Hybridity offers at least a partial way out of the gnostic error by keeping the body in play. Hybridity holds some possibility for both intercultural sensitivity and for enculturation to the university project: if the bricks-and-mortar university is one example of a centralized power, and the Distance Education, or "clicks" university, is another, then the bricks-and-clicks hybrid, which necessarily combines both presence and virtuality, is a hybridized and decentralized space for both transmission and critique of global university—and other—culture.

The material conditions which underlie development of various models of online education are worth exposing. For example, at UW-Milwaukee, where I teach, the campus is building a new parking structure at a cost of around $24 million, and to pay for which, parking fees are expected to rise by 6 percent each year for the next decade. The new structure will add around 300 spaces to the campus, which has an enrollment of around 25,000 students. In contrast, the current Chief Information Officer has publicly expressed his unwillingness to upgrade the modem pool—currently operating at 28.8 bps—which provides access to the Internet for faculty, staff and students from off-campus locations—e.g., people who are not at the time occupying one of those scarce parking spaces. The cost of upgrading the modems is estimated at around $250,000. These two examples occur in the context of a university-wide push for development of online course materials, hybrid course delivery, and distance education. But when put in that context, diversion of university resources—not just financial but intellectual and physical—to emerging technologies can be seen as both a push to reduce seat time and thus reduce pressure on a cramped physical environment but also a push to open access for those who can afford to maintain a separate, persistent Intenet connection in addition to paying for tuition, books, and parking. The corollary effect is to create a new vertical division of classes within the classes: Freshman Haves and Freshman Have-Nots.

These are important issues to be openly confronted. Instead, discussion of bricks-and-mortar, distance education, and hybrid models, often focuses on the frame or structures which organize teaching and learning, presuming that there is a transparency of roles and effects within the frame. But that is like focusing on the bureaucracy of government and ignoring the lived experience of governors and governed. The space of hybridity in digital education is a mediated third space, neither brick nor click. It preserves important elements, such as physical presence, non-verbal communication, symbolic public buildings and places, and synchronic interaction in a centralized space characterized largely by one-way transmission and reception of knowledge. At the same time that it does so—and thus preserves, for good or ill, existing hierarchies and relationships—it also distributes power and responsibility diachronically and geographically via the dispersion of time on task throughout the week or other unit of instructional time. Where classroom-based education can easily serve the colonizing functions of education, hybridity, by mediating distance with presence, opens the possibility of resistance to those functions. It opens the possibility of global connection fully contextualized with local culture, preserving the autonomy and character of a region while maintaining access to global markets, ideas, and technologies. It awaits further elaboration, but in this sense, a global network of hybrid educational centers would look an awful lot like anarchism, formally defined.

Let me close by re-emphasizing my earlier point: hybrid forms of online education re-inscribe the body in a discourse which is largely conducted in terms of gnostic transcendence. This is terribly important for the fates of cultures and knowledges whose history diverges from the Western narrative. Michael Heim reminds us that computers have "a dark side" in addition to their potential for use as tools of emancipation. [xi] He writes that "the stand-in self can never fully represent us. The more we mistake the cyberbodies for ourselves, the more the machine twists ourselves into the prostheses we are wearing." This dark side helps "technology [to] increasingly eliminat[e] human interdependence," according to Heim. This accords with the conclusion drawn by Hubert Dreyfus in last year's On the Internet, which ends with a claim that in valorizing "the virtual over the real" we risk falling for "the Platonic/Christian temptation to try to get rid of our vulnerable bodies" and that we must instead "affirm our bodies . . . because, without our bodies, as Nietzsche saw, we would be nothing." [xii]

Hybridity offers a solution to what is essentially a mind-body problem, where the alternatives are gnosis or mere physicality.

[i] A version of this talk is forthcoming in Transmissions, a volume in the Rutgers University Press New Directions in International Studies, series ed. Patrice Petro.

[ii] Hall, P. (1997, February). Megacities, world cities and global cities. In Megacities Lectures. Retrieved 6 May 2002, from The Megacities 2000 Foundation: Hall writes of:

    the phenomenon of globalization and its impact on the urban system, coupled with what can be called the informationalization of the economy, the progressive shift of advanced economies from goods production to information handling, whereby the great majority of the workforce no longer deal with material outputs.

[iii] Hybrid has also a racialized history detailed in postcolonial theory, where it is sometimes interpreted as part of the productive interchange between cultures (by, e.g., Homi Bhabha), or critiqued along those lines (e.g., by Robert Young or David Theo Goldberg). It also has currency in science and engineering, and its use in educational settings is fully open to critique from definition: we might well ask what it means to be a hybrid in a day and age of cyborgism and postcoloniality.

[v] Erik Davis, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (NY: Three Rivers, 1998). Davis writes: "the American self is a gnostic self, because it believes, on a deep and abiding level, that authenticity arises from independence, an independence that is at once natural, sovereign, and solitary" (102).

[vi] There is a gulf between desire and success. Witness the commercial failure of ColumbiaUniversity's Fathom distance education program. See

[viii] Oguibe, O. (2002). Connectivity and the fate of the unconnected. In David Theo Goldberg and At Quayson (Ed.), Relocating Postcolonialism (pp. 174-183). Ames, IA: Iowa State University/Basil Blackwell.

[ix] Selfe, C. L. (1999). Technology and literacy in the twenty-first century: The importance of paying attention. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

[x] Sargent, L. T. (1994). The three faces of utopianism revisited. Utopian Studies, 5(1), 1-37. 5.

[xi] Heim, M. (1993). The metaphysics of virtual reality. NY: Oxford University Press. 99-100.

[xii] Dreyfus, H. L. (2001). On the internet. NY: Routledge. 106-7.