Educational Technology & Society 2(4) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

A Distant Monologue

Karen Norum, Ph.D.
University of South Dakota
Technology for Training and Development
School of Education
Vermillion, SD 57069 USA


The theme of this issue explores the ubiquitous use of educational technology and the elusivity of this dream. In this experiential snapshot, I share my experience in delivering a monthly satellite broadcast. While I agree that distance education has its advantages, I do not believe it is appropriate for every course or everyone (to deliver or receive). But that is not what this story is about. I do not wish to get into a litany of the advantages/disadvantages of delivering education via distance. Rather, this is the story of my experience in using one kind of distance technology and the tentative conclusions I have drawn from reflecting on that experience. Because it is my story, other people may have had a different experience using this same kind of technology and would tell a very different story. I share the story of my experience in hopes of illuminating why for many of us, the ubiquitous use of technology is still an elusive dream.

Keywords: Distance education, Technology, Personal narrative, Satellite, Workload

The Experience

From January – December 1998, I prepared and delivered a monthly satellite broadcast to the Mountain Plains Health Consortium ( I came to dread that time of the month. It took me anywhere from five to ten hours to prepare for a one-hour broadcast. This preparation time included researching the topic of the broadcast, creating overheads, and rehearsing the broadcast. After the broadcast, a summary was posted on the web. As I became more familiar with the broadcast studio, the anxiety about if I was going to be able to use the equipment properly diminished, but anxiety about the broadcast in general never went away. I always breathed a great sigh of relief when it was over.

The broadcasts were two-way audio and one-way video. They (at times I wondered if "they" even existed) could see and hear me. I could not see them and to hear them, they would have to call in. No one ever did. I am told the broadcast went out to approximately one hundred rural and sometimes geographically isolated sites. People were granted continuing education credit but I do not know how it was determined whether or not they got credit. That was the Consortium Coordinator’s job. During the year, I asked the Coordinator periodically if he had received any feedback about the broadcasts and he assured me they were going fine. It was common for people not to call in. I also gave out my e-mail address so people could contact me with questions or comments, but I never got a response. No news was good news.

I came to dread that time of the month. Time to prepare a seemingly endless monologue. For someone who rarely lectures in the traditional classroom, to talk for sixty minutes was an interminable amount of time. Upon noticing the broadcast date was nearing, I would begin to obsess:

"What am I going to say to the camera for sixty minutes, one hour, one WHOLE hour? Can I possibly talk about this for an entire hour? I hate - no - despise, not having any interaction. Who actually listens to this broadcast? If someone would at least call in or even send me an e-mail! And the work! You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to fill up an hour of broadcast time. I swear these people who are pushing for 'distance everything' have no clue how much work goes into preparing for even one hour of "distance education"! I will be SO glad when this year is over!"

Perhaps technology enthusiasts could argue that it was the fault of the technology. Satellite broadcast technology is antiquated compared to, say, Interactive TV (or so my colleagues tell/promise me). I used my experience with these "distant monologues" to explore what it was about delivering education via distance that bothered me.

Reflections on the Experience

Maybe it was that for me, the use of the technologies involved in the satellite broadcasts was far from ubiquitous. I was always conscious of how artificial it was to go from the overhead projector to the computer to the camera back to the overhead, etc. I place a great deal of value in discussion vs. lecture and cannot see how holding a discussion with students at remote sights is pretty much the same as holding a discussion with all the students physically located in the same room. Yes, the artificiality of the technology bothered me, but there was more to it than that.

Great promise has been placed in using technology to free education from the constraints of geography and time. Some go as far as saying the advent of the computer dooms the education system as we know it, just as the appearance of the automobile doomed the buggy whip (Bennett, 1999). In South Dakota, we are being pushed to "go distance" in the name of efficiency. The idea is that one professor can reach a greater number of students and the students can be geographically dispersed, making access to higher education cheaper and easier for everyone. Less and less teachers reaching more and more students: a tempting way to reduce overhead and increase profits.

While technology has a seductive lure, from my experience, I do not believe distance education is more efficient. My experience so far has been it is not more efficient in terms of cost or time. In fact, when taking into consideration course development and delivery costs, distance education may cost more than traditional face-to-face courses (Moursund, 1999). Then there is the myth that distance education is more efficient in terms of time—that it is the initial development of the materials for distance delivery that is time consuming. The myth goes that once the course is developed and delivered, the time factor will decrease. Wrong. Even after becoming familiar with the technologies I was using and getting through that learning curve, it was still time-intensive to prepare for each broadcast. Course development is an on-going process and the true time involved is not fully appreciated (Carr-Chellman, 1999; Wolcott, 1997).

I must admit that before actually experiencing delivering instruction via distance technologies for the Consortium, I agreed with some of the arguments for going virtual. Did we really need physical buildings for education to take place? Perhaps, as Perelman (1992) wrote, school was out. In theory, the arguments for virtual education sounded good. The experience of delivering those monthly distant monologues shifted my mind. I now consider myself to be a "loving resistance fighter" (Postman, 1993, p. 182). While technology offers promise, there are also perils. Do we really buy the premise that "computers can teach better than most human teachers" (Bennett, 1999) and that those who do not embrace this idea are merely refusing to change their paradigm regarding the role of the teacher? Or could it be that technology is man-made, not part of the natural order of things (Postman, 1993), and must be critically, skeptically examined rather than blithely, zealously embraced?

Tentative Conclusions

The monthly distant monologues reminded me that learning is a social process—for both the students and the teacher. A community of learners is formed as teacher and students interact with each other. While it is possible to form virtual communities, these communities are not the same thing. The experience is qualitatively different (Carr-Chellman, 1999; Moursund, 1999). Hearing stories from those who have actually experienced the technology (from either the delivery or reception aspects) may help to balance the "near-religious fervor" of technology proponents with the skepticism of critics such as myself (Null, 1999). These stories will also help us to better name what it is about the experience that is qualitatively different.

While technology permeates society, it has yet to become ubiquitously embedded. Because it is not natural, perhaps technology will always have aura of oddness about it. My experience with monthly distant monologues has moved me to become a loving resistance fighter. For me, the reality of using the technology did not match the promise of it. While distance delivery of education may be appropriate under some circumstances, it is not appropriate for everything or everyone. Identifying appropriate uses and uncovering the real costs involved will evolve as more and more of us share our stories.

Perhaps because of people like me, the embedded ubiquitous use of technology is still an elusive dream. Through hearing stories of other people’s (good and bad) experiences, perhaps we will find clues to finally realize the dream.


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