Distance Learning Epistemologies

A reading of Elizabeth Losh’s 2014 book The War On Learning uncovers many interesting and provocative challenges on the trend toward “distance learning” popular among many institutions of higher education in recent years.  Modern universities, which Siva Vaidhyanathan has characterized as being remarkably “willing to experiment” within realms of knowledge and content delivery, have in recent years taped lectures from tenured, full-time faculty members and reproduced them online.  Some are posted on the university’s official website, while others are uploaded to YouTube, Twitter and other social media webspaces. It is here that a bridge must be crossed between the standards of success valued in traditional academic venues and those culturally practiced in social web settings.  Social web practices, repeated informally over and over in casual and participatory settings like social media sites, are again repeated when students engage in use of new media within an academic context.  It is my argument that I wish to outline here, and I think Losh might agree with this point, that online learning pedagogies in many of their incarnations do not pay close enough attention to deliberately re-training social web rhetorical practices students use outside of the classroom to properly fit the learning outcomes the courses seek to disseminate.

Social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook, function as part of what Losh labels as the “attention economy.” Clicks, page views, shares and site visits represent a modern currency in which popularity, rather than physical or even digital money, functions as revenue.  Online posts and webtexts often are understood within these environments where popularity is typically considered the primary metric of success. “Likes” are desirable.  Comments are desirable.  Positive engagement is desirable.

Here, Losh asks a provocative and illuminating series of questions that inquire into the true, de-facto goals, targets and designs of the modern research university.  She targets recent online-fad videos, one in which a professor is clearly inebriated while performing a lecture and another in which a professor orates an emotion-laden narrative of his battle with cancer, which he eventually relates, a bit vaguely, to his academic field of human-computer interaction.  The professor drops to the floor and does push-ups onstage.  He spends half an hour describing his adventurous and non-traditional admission into Brown University.  He parades a photograph of himself posing with comedian William Shatner.

The implication is that neither lecture, whatever the demonstrated values and rhetorical techniques appearing in their accompanying online video, demonstrates effective knowledge conveyance that will meaningfully impact students’ lives.

Losh asks: “How will lecture videos that are entertaining be judged in comparison with those that are informational? How will those that use academic evidence be judged in comparison with those that contain stirring testimony and personal revelations from the faculty member’s own life?” (Losh 87).

Losh questions whether these viral videos, for as useful as they are for engaging the public and spreading optimism, engage in an appropriate level of engagement with scholarly practices of research, critical thinking, scientific demonstration, and analysis and representation of data. Collegiate lectures at an institution as distinguished as Carnegie Mellon become a spectacle of pathos and autobiographical achievement in these viral videos, which  Losh contends are “packaged with a string bow and commoditized as mass-market motivational reading.”

The trouble, when it comes to online distance-learning lecture videos, is that positive engagement becomes easier to achieve and more obvious for display (valuable to increasingly value-crunched institutions) when the delivered content is friendlier, easier to handle, accessible and uncomplicated, and laden with emotion.  There is often, and I would like to stress that this is in no way always the case, the expectation that blogs will have readers, that videos will have viewers and that posted material with have a demanding audience. Too often, likability equates to success for a video at the expense of demonstrated critical thinking.

A clash of values hovers into focus when values of attention and entertainment, measured quantitatively through clicks, “likes” and views, becomes the standard on how we judge an academic lecture.  Values of likability fostered on social media platforms designate sympathy, understanding and rapport for the posted content, but less often and less clearly demonstrate that critical thought, contemplation, contextualization and synthesis have been achieved by the viewer with the delivered material.  Yes, viewers may remember these vivid and theatrical lectures, but what exactly is it that they are remembering?  Is it the class material they remember, or is the optimism, the animation, the drama?

The aim for a successful college lecture is, to me, the transfer to students of specific and synthesized knowledge from a particular field through deliberate, targeted strategies designed to shape students into empowered disciplinary actors.

Institutions of higher education often strive for student recruitment and brand advertisement when posting online. This extends to the recorded college lecture, where a university image is presented by a talking head who seeks to grab the attention of potential students, cultural writers and members of the pubic.

Quality educational lectures are not mutually-exclusive with entertaining ones, but we must not allow ourselves to fall into the trap that they necessarily need to be one and the same.  The fear for me, and many others in higher education as well, is that the corporate drive of the modern research university to expand and proliferate resources will cause administrators to value attention-grabbing research initiatives rather than ones that are valuable for more traditional reasons.

MOOC platforms like Coursera also generally are judged by how popular they are rather than the quality of the education they provide, at least within popular circles.  In many cases in which success is measured by corporate and budget-justifying standards, it is quantitative analysis that takes the forefront rather than qualitative inquiry.

An interesting, newer practice is detailed in a recent article of The Chronicle of Higher Education in which two psychology professors at UT Austin conducted what they call the first SMOC, meaning synchronous massive online course.  The professors, Samuel D. Gosling and James W. Pennebaker, lecture with a camera in the room that livestreams their small-room sessions and class programming to a much-larger online audience. In any given class session, 20 or so students are present inside of the room while approximately 800 other class members tune in from dorm room desks, coffee shop couches and mobile phones, perhaps even at the airport on mobile devices while on their way home for the winter holidays.  The professors do not make use of a formal textbook, but rather rely upon selections from online sources such as Wikipedia, YouTube, TED and other websites from around the world.  They also do not give out standard knowledge-intake exams, but rather quiz using “benchmarks” at the beginning of each lecture.  They maintain a class Twitter account with its own hashtag to integrate students into a multimedia classroom experience that strives for learning from all angles.

The idea, for Gosling and Pennebaker, is that a smaller and more-personal class will improve the distance-learning experience and quality of received instruction for the hundreds viewing from outside the classroom as well as for the instructor teaching the course. It’s a step in the right direction, but how we re-train social web practices that have become internalized for our students within new medias for practice in the online classroom will go a long way towards facilitating a functioning, feasible and competitive learning environment within higher education as we know it today.


Losh, Elizabeth.  “The War On Learning.”  The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.  2014. Print.

Vaidhyanathan, Siva.  “The Classroom as a Sacred Space- Siva Vaidhyanathan.” Web, 2010.http://fora.tv/2010/04/21/Siva_Vaidhyanathan_The_Classroom_Is_Sacred#fullprogram.

Mangan, Katherine.  “The Personal Lecture: How to Make Big Classes Feel Small.” The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Web, 4 December 2016.  http://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Personal-Lecture/238559

Gosling, Samuel D. and James W. Pennebaker.  “Psychology 301: Introductory Psychology– Syllabus.” Web. https://facultyinnovate.utexas.edu/sites/default/files/psy301201642210.pdf

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