January/February 2001 // Commentary
Distance Educators Before the River Styx
by Stephen Downes
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Stephen Downes "Distance Educators Before the River Styx" The Technology Source, January/February 2001. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

I am sympathetic with the points raised in John Hibbs's article, "Distance Education Exam at the Pearly Gates" (Hibbs, 2001). Hibbs touches on more than the hypocrisy of distance education professionals who refuse to hold their distance education conferences online; he points to academia's unwillingness in general to revisit some of its cherished presumptions.

Hibbs's main point is that it is contradictory for academically-based distance educators to promote online learning but insist on face-to-face conferences. In my opinion, this is only the surface of a deeper issue that is lost in his presentation. It is not just that conferences are offered face-to-face, but that they are structured in such a way that face-to-face participation is the only possibility.

Consider the Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning, held in August 2000 at the University of Wisconsin. Of the 80 sessions conducted at the conference, only three were available on the World Wide Web, with an additional six links to authors' home pages. The only way to have participated in this conference was to travel to Madison. The presentations were not provided online (though you could order video tapes for $9 per session), and the Web site had no online forum.

It's not that we don't know how to conduct an online conference. In 1995, with my colleague Jeff McLaughlin, I conducted an online workshop for the Canadian Association of Distance Education. McLaughlin and I also hosted a session with Diversity University that same year (Downes and McLaughlin, 1995), and as recently as November I participated in a lively online multimedia debate at Net*Working 2000, the Australian National Training Authority's third online conference. I have also participated in online conferences with the University of Maryland University College and Canada’s The Node.

In addition, there is evidence that we are learning how to provide better online conferences and that they are getting easier to manage. As Shimabukuro (2000a) writes, "Most educators already have the minimum skills: they can read and send e-mail, and they can log on to a Web page and explore the site." Shimabukuro (2000b) also describes how online conferences are becoming more flexible and more interactive. There should be no barriers, then, to conference participation online.

Discrediting Online Discourse

Since barriers do exist, however, the only conclusion to be drawn is this: organizers could offer conferences online, but won't. To take the argument a step further, the problem is that distance education professionals at universities don't recognize the legitmacy of online discourse. If an article has not appeared in print, it might as well not exist. To be considered sufficiently academic, an article on distance education must cite primarily, if not exclusively, print publications. Even using the word "available" in citations suggests that online presentation is an alternative and secondary mode of access. Hibbs could have (but unfortunately didn't) pointed out the irony of "major" works about online learning that do not cite a single online source.

Tony Bates's Managing Technological Change is an example of a recent and important work in the field of online learning. Bates lists only a couple of dozen URLs as citations, and in the list of references, not one URL appears. Are we to believe that Bates found no online sources worth crediting? Articles appearing in academic journals are no better: check the references of any paper and you may find one or two URLs listed among dozens of printed works. And while some journals (e.g., the Canadian Journal of University Continuing Education) place all of their articles online, most do not.

Do none of the distance educators publishing articles about online learning read DEOS-L or WWW-DEV? Do they derive no inspiration, no original ideas, from these online sources? If they do not, the credibility of the resultant articles should be questioned. But if they do, their granting credit to print sources only should be questioned.

Accessibility for All?

Hibbs also points out that despite its pretensions to the contrary, the academic world fails to address issues of accessibility and affordability. This failure is most clear when conference presentations are available only by attending the conference, at a cost of $3,000. This failure is less dramatic, but still clear, when academically-based distance educators publish their findings in expensive journals or books while providing only abstracts (or less) on the Internet.

It is revealing that courses offered by traditional institutions cost more when presented online, when in fact online technology reduces cost by an order of magnitude. And while academics may express concerns about the quality of online offerings, it would take a good deal of research to identify the pedagogical weakness in FreeEnglish's English as a Second Language course ($9.95 per month) or advanced computer training from SmartPlanet ($15.95 a month). Again, it seems that universities could offer their courses for less, but won’t.

The Corporate and Non-Corporate Worlds of Learning

Finally, I think Hibbs points to a large divide between the corporate and non-corporate worlds of learning. Distance educators who work in the Academy are not very interested in the non-academic world. People working outside this clique find this lack of interest frustrating, not simply because their work goes uncredited (distance educators rework the same material, publish it, and claim credit), but because important insights are overlooked by the academic world. It is hard to believe, for example, that academic writers would not be influenced by Tom Barron's (2000) "A Smarter Frankenstein: The Merging of E-Learning and Knowledge Management," for example, or Harvi Singh's (2000) "The convergence of e-learning and knowledge management," or even my own (Downes, 1998) "The Future of Online Learning," which discuss the convergence of learning and data management. Yet you would struggle to find references to these and similar publications in a book or academic journal.

The hypocrisy is this: while distance educators talk about online learning as inclusive and empowering, their practice remains exclusive and disempowering. In their conferences, courses, and publications we see no move toward a wider audience or a wider base of participation. University professors, long criticized for being an enclave in society, remain an enclave even when they become distance educatiors in an online world. In thirteen years in distance education I have watched distance educators' self-imposed isolation push them ever farther from the mainstream of online learning. I have been criticized for suggesting that traditional academia stands on the brink of an abyss. Hibbs's article suggests it has one foot in the water. Distance educators ought to take heed, for it is a long, uphill swim once you have been swept down the river.


Barron, T. (2000, August). A smarter Frankenstein: the merging of e-learning and knowledge management. Learning Circuits. Retrieved 15 December 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.learningcircuits.org/aug2000/barron.html.

Bates, T. (2000). Managing technological change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Downes, S. (1998) The future of online learning. Paper presented at the NAWeb 98 meeting, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, NB. Retrieved 15 December 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.atl.ualberta.ca/downes/future/home.html.

Downes, S., & McLaughlin, J. (1995). MOO? No, this is a MAUD! Session Proceedings. Diversity University, June 23, 1995. Retrieved 15 December 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.atl.ualberta.ca/downes/threads/du.htm.

Hibbs, J. (2000, January/February). Distance education exam at the pearly gates. The Technology Source. Retrieved 15 December 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=78.

Shimabukuro, J. (2000, January/February). What is an online conference? The Technology Source. Retrieved 18 December 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=422.

Shimabukuro, J. (2000, September/October). The evolving virtual conference: implications for professional networking. The Technology Source. Retrieved 18 December 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=327.

Singh, H. (2000, December). The convergence of e-learning and knowledge management. E-Learning Magazine. Retrieved 15 December 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://www.elearningmag.com/issues/dec00/converge.htm.

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