And now for something completely different

Outlooks and Opportunities in Blended and Distance LearningDuring 2010, I was what a colleague referred to as ‘underemployed’. The church ran out of funding for my chaplaincy position and I spent time working as a research assistant/editor for a number of people around the University of New England. One of my jobs was doing research about how various universities offer postgraduate research degrees by distance education for the DEHub in its previous iteration as a consortium between five universities (four  Australian and one New Zealand). I was invited to present the findings at the international SUMMIT that they held in February 2011 and the paper has recently been published as a chapter in  Belinda Tynan, Julie Willems & Rosalind James (eds) Outlooks and Opportunities in Blended and Distance Learning Hershey PA, IGI Global, 2013. My chapter is “Communities of Practice for Distance Research Students in Australia: Why Do We Need Them and How Might We Create Them? (pp 346-352)” The book contains a range of interesting papers (another job that I had was to check that all the authors had implemented the reviewers’ suggestions or justified not doing so, so I have read them all), but it is quite expensive and probably of limited use to anyone who is not working in distance/blended learning.

One of my favourites is Mpine Makoe’s “The Pedagogical Suitability of Using Cell Phones to Support Distance Education Students” (pp 114-128), which talks about how she and her colleagues use mobile (cell) phones to provide support for students studying by distance in rural South Africa. She says:

The potential for using cell phones for educational purposes is enormous in a country of limited access to infrastructure that supports telephones, computers and broadband capacity for easy connectivity. In addition, few people have expertise of using computers. In the past ten years, cell phone users in Africa have increased to over 600 million, second only to Asia, (Reed 2011). In South Africa alone, the cell phone penetration is estimated at 98 percent. More than 90 per cent of University of South Africa (UNISA) students own or have access to a cell phone. Most of the cell phones they own have software features such as the internet, instant messaging platforms, pictures, video, music and games. Even the low-cost cell phones have some of these features that enable them to be used in education for collaboration, tutoring, research, reading and writing purposes (Prensky, 2004). The latest top of the range cell phones have the computing power of the mid-1990s computers while consuming one-hundredth of the energy (Prensky, 2004). Its mobility allows students to learn anytime, anywhere and everywhere.

Keegan (2005, p. 3) argues that ‘it is not technologies with inherent pedagogical qualities that are successful in distance education, but technologies that are generally available to citizens’. Since cell phones are used widely by a majority of distance education students, their use in teaching and learning is even more appropriate in a distance education context because they have the potential to reduce the formality of learning experiences that is not tied to a particular physical location. What this means in the South African context is that distance education students who live in remote rural areas can use cell phones to communicate with their lecturers and seek help from their peers. The efficacy of distance education in promoting access to marginalised students is premised on the notion that it can accommodate an increased and more diverse student population at reduced costs.

I found this concept amazing – I had to rethink my view of South Africa and of the use of mobile phones.