Will it Play in Peoria? (Putting More “Distance” in Distance Education)

By Matt McKinnon

That should really be: Will it “Work” in Peoria?

Or better: Can “I” Work “from” Peoria.

I have been involved in “distance education” in the form of teaching online for six years now. For the first five of these, I, like many BLS instructors, taught traditional face-to-face classes in addition to my online offerings, working a joint appointment in both Religious Studies and the BLS program.

My approach to online education was probably pretty common: It’s just like my “regular” courses—only entirely online: lectures can be morphed into notes that students can read, the discussion board will work just like class discussion, and the rest is really just students reading books and writing papers.

Distance education, I assumed, meant distance “learning,” and any differences between the teaching I did in my face-to-face classes and that of my online courses would be logistical—and up to the students to work out.

And then I moved to Peoria (right on the edge of “Forgottonia”) and discovered what anyone who has ever taught online while on leave from the University already knew:

Distance Education means distance “teaching” as well as distance “learning.”

(Well duh! It makes sense now, but as is the case with all Copernican-type revolutions where the “center” gets displaced from it place of fictive prominence, it came as quite an eye-opener.)

Of course this does not change everything; nor should it. Many professors, including myself, still feel that the best way for education at the highest levels to occur is, well, students reading, discussing the material with the class, and traditional assessment strategies like examinations and papers. (And maybe the occasional interactive activity.)

But it does change some things, and one of the things it changes the most is approach to research and access to a top-rated academic library.

Luckily, however, the same technology that is driving distance education has already been driving distance research for quite a while.

I remember way back in graduate school —not long after Al Gore had invented the internet—when I was assigned my first research assistantship. I worked for Father Kurtz, a Roman Catholic priest (a Jesuit in fact) who didn’t have a lot of things to do other than writing articles and books. So he did a lot of research, which of course required that I do a lot of research.

The major religious studies data bases had recently been put online, going in a matter of a few years from print to computer, and then to “computer that I could access from the comfort of my living room.”

I could compile in an hour research that would have taken his previous assistants days to sort through. (He thought I was brilliant, driven, and a workaholic like himself when in reality I was just knowledgeable of the available resources and lazy enough to find a way to access them from home.

The good news is that now BLS students have even better resources available to them—and presumably more comfortable living rooms than a poor graduate student holed-up in Milwaukee.

The place to start is the Library’s own website dedicated to Distance Education Services.

It has links that assists you in getting hard copies of the books and articles that the library possesses (or that may be better accessible closer to you).

It has online workshops where you can participate in seminars on everything from learning Jing to career assistance.

It has a link to “Path,” the Library’s 10 module research tutorial.

It has links to technical assistance as well as the University’s very own Distance Education Librarian, Beth Filar Williams, who is trained to help you with your online research projects.

(Beth can be contacted at efwilli3@uncg.edu or 336-256-1231.)

Some BLS courses even have research guides tailored to their specific requirements (and hopefully more will have them soon). Here’s an example from the Pathways course.

And, by clicking on “Other Help With Research,” it has links to “Research Guides by Subject,” which will put you in touch with all of the major academic data bases that made yours truly Father Kurtz’s star researcher back in grad school.

(I won’t tell if you won’t tell.)

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