Improved Access to Digital Arts Instruction:

Asynchronous Education Worth Pursuing Now

(Distance Education is a Remote Possibility)

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Instructional programs involving a sizable hands-on experience component--especially those with costly equipment requirements like digital arts--cannot be taught through distance education. Asynchronous education preserves the essential benefits of distance education even for students who must spend time on campus: it allows each individual to manage his/her own instructional schedule while still interacting with classmates and faculty. This teaching strategy is accomplished through the standard networking services of the Internet.

Singing the praises of distance education is often the only form of entertainment at school faculty and administrators' gatherings. This old tune gets so much airplay because it appears to offer an escape from the realities of crowded and inadequate facilities, poor student retention, curriculum obsolescence, and assorted other woes. In fact, outside of special cases, it is doubtful that distance education would do much besides shift the problem elsewhere--literally. And yet, as in the infectious commercial jingle for a product we wouldn't care buying, there is something in the notion of distance education that keeps playing back in our heads. Could that something be an often-overlooked side-effect, having nothing to do with location but revolving around timing? To find out, let's venture boldly into the educational space-time continuum...

The Good, the Bad, the Impossible

Bringing instruction to the students' residence or workplace entails some very real benefits, from alleviating the learning disadvantages imposed by specific disabilities, to reducing the congestion and pollution of urban areas. Balancing these benefits are uneven access, limited or no feedback, and often cumbersome setup, possibly with substantial upfront costs.

Ultimately, even the strongest praise and objections are irrelevant to some disciplines, in which the very possibility of any form of distance education is questionable. Narrowing our focus to the Digital Arts field, it is quite apparent that the barriers to distance education implementation are currently unsurmountable. This statement is based on the costly requirements of any and all computer art classes:

These costs are normally subsidized by the school, making computer classes, ironically, generally less expensive for the students than the traditional, supplies-intensive studio arts. These subsidies are highly leveraged in the typical school lab through resource sharing and intense utilization of the facilities. Extending equivalent subsidies to the students on an individual basis would increase expenditures to prohibitive levels. Withdrawing the subsidies would make it impossible, for all but the wealthiest, to profit from instruction by supplementing theory with hands-on practice.

It is worth noting that this situation is not entirely unique to the Digital Arts: many disciplines in applied technologies and hard sciences are equally hardware and/or facilities bound, and equally 'non-portable'. What makes the Digital Arts case especially interesting is that:

  1. It is not fundamentally unsolvable--unlike 'smokestack' technologies and 'cyclotron' sciences, which simply cannot be replicated throughout the landscape. The constant evolution of computer technology makes a 'technological fix' in some unspecified future not entirely unthinkable.
  2. It is, however, formidably challenging. The combination of visual quality and processing power that the Digital Arts demand exceeds the requirements of most other computer applications.
  3. It entails the unthinkable in policymaking: increasing funding to match actual instructional and job market needs.
Whatever ultimate conclusions are derived from these premises, it is quite clear that any short-term solution to our pressing educational needs cannot rely on distance education--at least not in the fields mentioned above.

On close inspection, all the negatives pointed out so far are the direct consequence of the emphasis on distance--the attempt to bring a very complex, expensive, and demanding learning environment to a large number of locations. But we should not mistake means and ends. What we are really after is improved student access to learning opportunities. Geographical barriers are only one, and not necessarily the most significant, among the hurdles holding back prospective students. In fact, the number and type of hurdles is largely unpredictable and likely to change with evolving personal and societal circumstances. The only generally applicable strategy is one that empowers each student to design his/her own individual strategy.

In short, educational institutions need less rigidity in their requirements and more trust in the students' independent assessment of their own learning needs. The basis for just such a flexible and individualized approach can be found in the hidden recesses of distance education--and it demands an urgent reappraisal.

Meetings of the Minds Don't Have to Be Scheduled

A consequence of many distance education projects is often overlooked, almost as if it were an irrelevant side effect: the instructor and the students are separated in time as well as in space. The instructor may tape a lecture for later broadcast, or a videodisc in a library carrel may supplement a live videoconferencing session. In each case, teacher and learner follow independent schedules. An agreed-upon protocol (self-administered quizzes, questions submitted in writing) bridges the gap between the participants and moves the process forward.

The traditional distance education technologies impose notable limitations: at the high end, they require special-purpose equipment or services (videoconferencing rooms, satellite uplinks) that bring us right back to the infrastructure problem. At the low end, they rely on public services designed for one-way broadcast (such as television) or point-to-point connections (the switched telephone network), thus severely limiting the interaction between participants. However, if we allow for these limitations, it is the time element that really provides the greatest benefits to the students: it introduces a way to mold the instructional schedule around each individual's real-world commitments.

The disconnection of teaching and learning schedules, along with the preservation of rich two-way interaction, are the essential characteristics of Asynchronous Education. In focusing on the time-shift features of distance education, asynchronous education can rely on technologies entirely built on store-and-forward, "24/7" availability. These are the time-tested networking protocols that make a global Internet possible--and now accessible to a sizable portion of the population in industrialized countries. An asynchronous education project involves the following Internet services:

The computing facilities necessary to access the Internet are substantially less complex and expensive than those required by the practice of digital arts. It is thus possible that many students will be able to participate from their home or place of work. However, remote access is neither a principal goal nor a requisite feature for asynchronous education to succeed. Its benefits would still be felt if all the participants used the same campus facility for access--but at staggered, independent times.

Asynchronous education does not preclude a timely conversation between the parties in the educational experience, and it does not aim to altogether replace other instructional approaches. It does, however, tear down some artificial barriers to student access, and in doing so may enable new learning styles and opportunities:

Students indicated that they liked the time to reflect on ideas before responding to them. Synchronous discussions required a speed of response and an attentiveness that was demanding. The combination of germinating ideas in synchronous discussions and following through with more in-depth asynchronous discussions became a trend as the year progressed.
The program also benefited from being able to access experts online who would normally not be available for a face-to-face class. Dr. Ben Shneiderman, University of Maryland, and Dr. Don Norman, Apple Computer, Inc., both participated in the program by answering e-mail inquiries from students during a designated time period. Attempts to set up synchronous discussions online were unsuccessful due to scheduling conflicts. It became clear that it was important for the expert to participate when it was convenient in their schedule.

Talley, Sue (May 1997), "EdTech Does It Online at Pepperdine University," THE Journal, Vol. 24, N. 10, pp. 69-71.

Asynchronous education does not impede any of the goals of distance education, while re-prioritizing them: geographical dispersion is quite compatible with asynchronous education and becomes one of its important side effects--whenever feasible. But if a geographically dispersed infrastructure is unavailable, asynchronous education can proceed in the current centralized learning facilities--and still provide sizable benefits. In the current situation of high job market demand and limited educational resources, the field of digital arts should be especially receptive to any attempts to address the significant challenges facing education today:

Recent reform efforts have been focused on integrating general and vocational education and on encouraging lifelong or recurrent education to meet changing individual and social needs. Thus, not only has the number of students and institutions increased, as a result of inclusion policies, but the scope of education has also expanded. This tremendous growth, however, has raised new questions about the proper functions of the school and the effectiveness for life, work, or intellectual advancement of present programs and means of instruction.

"History of Education: Major Trends and Problems." Britannica CD, Version 97. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1997.

Ultimately, as industry evolves towards a more network-based workflow, asynchronous education will enable education to stay in step with employer requirements, using an instructional model that truly goes the distance.

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Copyright 1997-2000 by Sandro Corsi.
Posted 1997-05-19. Last revised 2000-03-14
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