The Omnipresence of distributed learning

Interviewing Julie Martin, Director of E.A.T., for the Catalysts online course at the Museum of Modern Art

Nowadays, the classroom is everywhere. It no longer has boundaries, no walls, no limits. In the age of distributed learning, MOOCs (bless their heart), and the myriad forms of online education: the classroom is like an amorphous organism spreading its pedagogical tentacles into the instructional ether. A lecture or an interview or any form of dialogue thus becomes an agent for learning that can be distributed across the network to anyone, anywhere with a computer (or even a phone) and a connection. This is education so pervasive, so totalizingly omnipresent, that it baffles the mind to consider the possibilities of spreading knowledge in all directions.

But there is a dark side, and shall I say, it lies in the oligarchical, hierarchical spreading of knowledge to the masses. This darkness stems from the notion of the traditional mode of the one-to-many system of media distribution, so frighteningly depicted in George Orwell’s 1984, when every telescreen broadcast the One (Big Brother) to the Many (citizens of Oceania) as a panoptical view of a surveilled society, a total conrol mechanism to eradicate all hope of individual thought and freedom.

Whew! It seems that distributed learning should be just the opposite: here we envision a professor engaging with students in the space of the network where hierarchies are flattened and students are encouraged to exercise their rights to communicate with one another: laterally and pervasively. But the professor must be present in the equation: essentially acting as an experienced navigator who facilitates this interaction using the materials and ideas of the course as context.

Ah, such a utopian idea! Its seems to be undermined by the sheer size and scope of the MOOC, which can be well over 100K students. Yes, that’s right, with a capital “K.” Now theoretically, it seems as though a MOOC, the size of a small city, might just be the infrastructure for a complex network of peer-to-peer interaction. But when the notion of distributed learning is truly founded on the presence of the teacher as a guide in the blinding light of knowledge (yes, that’s an allusion to Plato’s Cave), and the professor exists only as a pre-recorded video, a talking head, a mouthpiece: well, I’m almost afraid to say it: it’s a little like Big Brother.

But distributed learning doesn’t have to be that way, and well it’s simply not in my world. Not if the size of a class, the precious size of a class, the very thing that is the most important resource in a class, size, is kept to a manageable and affordable minimum. In my recent class: Calaysts: Artists Creating with Video, Sound, and Time, created for the Museum of Modern Art, I had 35 students who were as active and engaged as a teacher could hope. So much daily chatter, in fact, that I could barely keep up with the torrent of ideas, projects, frustrations, breakthroughs, and moments of  learning. It was extraordinary. My MoMA students were from all walks of artistic life: artists, gallery owners, teachers, etc. But they all had one thing in common: a passion to learn and a need for community to share their ideas, work, and aspirations. Many of them had graduate degrees in art, and they approached their work from all conceivable angles as painters, photographers, digital artists, curators, musicians, theorists, writers, and even a few non-art people.

The point of these reflections following the conclusion of my MoMA course, is that in an online course, students are from all over the world, yet, in the virtual space of the online classroom, the notion of distributed space and multiple time-zones collapses into a kind of non-spatial, non-temporal space of distributed learning. We were never connected live, but there was a sense of real activity in the asynchronous classroom: no sooner did you post a message, day or night, then new ones would pop up in your in box. A student working late into the night or early in the morning on a video piece or a sound object or an assignment to write critical remarks would post something new. In the distributed, asynchronous space of the class, there was a continuous momentum of things happening, voices emerging, ideas floating: from one person to the next.

Does this happen in a MOOC, well quite frankly I don’t really know for sure, but it is hard to imagine that one can engage with 100K students with this degree of intimacy and passion. If the presence of the teacher is in video form, then what you get is a recorded message, however intelligent and profound that voice may be, it is a fixed voice in a recorded medium that can only be played and paused.

The heart and soul of distributed learning is not the static media broadcast, it is the fluid exchange of ideas that pass from teacher to student and back to student over and over again in the circulatory knowledge system of the asynchronous classroom. The broadcast (the content) provides the context for the learning, it is the information, the raw and pure data, but it can never replace the human dynamic, of real people with voices, lighting up the space with the heat of learning.

Distributed learning: what does that mean? It means circulating knowledge through the system from one mind to another: between those who inhabit the space as willing receptacles of knowledge. Ultimately, distributed learning is the way that information is injected into the system of an online course, amplified spatially by the network, as well as intellectually by the participants. In the telematic system, learning becomes a global phenomenon, inter-cultural, interdisciplinary, without boundaries, and with endless potential for distribution. But always, there must be a living being at its core, a teacher, not a recording.