Sociological Insights in Structuring Australian Distance Education

Sociological Insights in Structuring Australian Distance Education

Angela T. Ragusa
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch559
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Sociology is well-known for analyzing institutions and social change (Holmes, Hughes, & Julian, 2007). Yet, a dearth of sociological research explores technology and distance education (DE) despite imperatives to include cultural issues (Jorgensen, 2002; Lum, 2006). Meta-analysis shows social studies scholars fail to prioritize technological research (Marri, 2007). Sociologists have examined Webbased instruction and anxiety levels (Gundy, Morton, Liu, & Kline, 2006), flaming (Lee, 2005) and the relationship between learning environment, pedagogy, social roles, relations (Jaffee, 2003) and unintended benefits of traditional classrooms using DE (Edwards, Cordray, & Dorbolo, 2000). This qualitative exploratory research looks at asynchronous forum (AF) and DE student experiences in Australia. Using social constructivism, learning is seen as praxis, or doing (Vygotsky, 1986) in contrast with ancient traditionalists’ tabula rasa/“blank slate” understanding of learners waiting to be filled with knowledge (Palloff & Pratt, 2001). Case studies show how culture and learning environments affect virtual communication (VC) when all communication, student-teacher and student-student, is technologically mediated. Experiences from four 2005-2006 cohorts show social structure affects student perceptions’ of learning, satisfaction and agency.
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Knowledge is an interaction between learner and environment, subsequently reconfiguring both (Semple, 2000). What counts as knowledge is subjective and historically contingent. Advanced capitalistic societies are affected by information technologies (IT) in our “Information Age.” In advanced capitalism, ownership and management of IT create global networks and change social interaction (Castells, 2000). This change affects education as technology increasingly facilitates dialogue across power structures and hierarchies (Sorenson, 2007). Virtual communities have emerged alongside, sometimes replacing, traditional communities. In e-learning communities, global citizens often use virtual classrooms (VCM). “Globalization of the world’s economies is leading to increased emphasis on internationalization of the curriculum” (Barjis, 2003, p. 1). AFs offer DE interaction opportunities that may be “an acceptable alternative to face-to-face [F2F] discussion” (Payne & Reinhart, 2008, p. 36). In VCM, identity is more complex than in F2F settings. Technology brings new cultural products and ways of thinking and acting. DE is a fragmented cultural product and pedagogic design and course management systems are contested as neutral (Payne & Reinhart, 2008; Sorensen, 2007).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Flexible Delivery: A mode of education more adaptable to time/geographical constraints than face-to-face classrooms. Often appeals to mature, rural/remote students or others with competing life demands (i.e., employment/child care).

Virtual Communication: Electronic information transfer between individuals/groups via the Internet. Can be text-based (e-mail, wikis, forums) or oral (podcasts). Meanings and communication norms differ from face-to-face communication.

Virtual Classrooms: Exist in contrast to face-to-face learning. Often used in distance education with asynchronous (consecutive) or synchronous (“real-time”) communication.

Online Identity: Identity refers to a fluid social-psychological sense of “self” in relation to others. Online identities may be similar/different to “real world” identities.

Learning Communities: A social group sharing common experiences, cognitive boundaries, sense of belonging and geographical space (virtual or physical) who come together to learn.

Asynchronous Forum: Online communication billboard unconstrained by date/time. Users post statements for others’ immediate or later review. Past postings stay viewable, depending on host server or project length.

E-Learning: E-learning uses technology to teach/learn and is a type of “distance education.” University degrees via e-learning may use electronic assessments, virtual classrooms, and online resources.

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