Børje Holmberg on his theory of the empathetic teaching-learning conversation
I’ll start with how it started. It is a very naïve story, very, very simple. In the early 1940’s I saw a correspondence course in French which fascinated me. It taught the student the simple things that beginners have to fight with in French, for example the order in which the personal pronouns are placed in French: “je lui ai écrit une lettre, je la lui ai écrite, je l’ai envoyée, il me l’a dit etc. etc”. And this was done in such a way that the author made the students follow his presentation; it was a sort of conversation with the student, it was not a teacher talking to students, it was a teacher talking with students. I thought it was fascinating to see that such a dreary subject could be dealt with in this way, with what I called a conversational way. That was my first observation.
Then at a very early stage – I mentioned the idea in a book of mine of 1960 – it struck me on the one hand that many distance-education courses were little more than school books with self-checking exercises and recurring tasks for submission to the distance-teaching organisation, on the other hand that the atmosphere and style of helpful face-to-face teaching could easily replace this schoolbook style in the way the author of the French course had done. It is generally accepted that friendly atmosphere, helpful suggestions and encouragement support study motivation and facilitate success. This led me to the very natural conclusion that if we cater for this empathetic approach in distance education the outcomes of the study will improve. The medium used to bring about empathy is normally friendly conversation. This is the very simple background of my theory of teaching-learning conversations in distance education.
Basically the theory implies that what applies to the creation of empathy in faceto-face teaching also applies to distance education – provided special measures are taken to make sure that students are engaged in decision making, that the style of presentation is lucid, problem-oriented and conversation-like, that friendly noncontiguous interaction between students and tutors is brought about and that liberal organisational-administrative structures and processes are created.
This appears evident, doesn’t it? Every educator knows that a friendly tone is conducive to good learning. So why on earth point it out? A study of existing preproduced distance-education courses and of the practice of ‘correcting’ assignments submitted shows clearly that there is every reason to point out the advantages of empathetic conversation-like presentations and student-tutor interaction. The regrettable fact is that still very many, probably most, distance courses have little of this conversational character. Too often they are merely handbook texts and the interaction with tutors consists mainly of correction and little teaching or explanation.
Naturally at academic and similar levels students have to read difficult and complicated scholarly presentations. There is no reason, however, why these should be distance-education texts. Such presentations are available on the market in book form. By distance education we can provide empathy-supporting, conversational guides to the study of these difficult scholarly tests and thus help students to study them. That is a parallel of what is done in traditional teaching. Full explanations, relevant examples, useful comparisons etc. given in a helpful and friendly way should, I think, alleviate and guide the study. This is what is done by a good lecturer in traditional teaching. Why should we deprive distance students of this kind of learning support? It can be provided in print, online or by speech in recorded form.
At elementary levels the whole of a course can be – and in my view should be – developed as a conversation, preferably of a Socratic type, to help students reach their goals. Here we have a good correspondence course like the course in French that I mentioned as our model.
The friendly atmosphere is essential also in the interaction between students and tutors. Helping (teaching) students is the main purpose of this interaction. This naturally means teaching, explaining and providing examples etc. Awarding marks (grades) is only a possible secondary part of the tutor’s work.
My modest theory simply means that a procedure that has proved helpful in traditional education is applicable also to distance education. Empathy between those who teach and those who learn is universally a good basis for learning. Easily understandable, conversation-like presentations and friendly interaction help students to learn. Empirical investigations support these assumptions.
This theory of mine has been much discussed, as far as I know not rejected, but received with varying degrees of enthusiasm (cf. Keegan 1993 and later editions). Among those who are little enthusiastic I count my two respected fellow presenters in this debate.
Otto Peters on his theory of distance education as the most industrialized form of education
At the beginning I should like to express my feelings of disappointment and sadness. You may be asking yourselves why this is. It was only the other day that I read an article written by D. Randy Garrison (2000), a well-known distance education expert. In it, he characterizes “Peters’ industrial model” as an organizational model, saying that it is about organizing the educational process to realize economies of scale. After 50 years of discussion I am still misunderstood in such a massive way.
I should like to explain my emotional reaction by telling you something about the genesis of this theory. The irony of Garrison’s statement is that I am a pedagogue, and not an expert in organization. I was a pedagogue in the 1960s when I tried to analyze educational approaches. In doing so I came across what was called at that time “correspondence education”, a form of education that was ignored by educationists and the scientific community. I was not involved in correspondence education myself, it was only my scholarly interest as a pedagogue that induced me to see what was happening in this peculiar form of education. I tried to analyze and describe it by applying those pedagogical criteria that were used by pedagogues at that time. This means that I analyzed it with regard to objectives, content, methods, and media as well as to students and teachers. When I had finished I was extremely dissatisfied. My mistake was that I had applied criteria developed for face-to-face instruction in schools and at universities. Consequently distance education appeared merely as a special form of classroom teaching. I had the feeling that this interpretation did not do justice to this entirely different form of teaching and learning, and looked at it more closely in order to find out characteristic differences between the two forms of education.
After studying the teaching and learning at correspondence schools, correspondence colleges, at UNISA, at European and U.S. universities, and at universities of the former Soviet Union I found that all of them had something in common: their teaching and learning are highly “industrialized”. No one had realized this then. Even worse, I was to learn that there were even experts who not only ignored but also tended to deny this characteristic feature of distance education. Therefore I tried to convince these experts
that distance education is a form of teaching and learning that sprang up and developed only in the industrial age and is an expression of industrialization, whereas classroom education represents a pre-industrial (artisan) form of teaching and learning,
that the first owners of correspondence schools were entrepreneurs who found it adequate and profitable to apply methods of the industrialization of goods to teaching and learning,
that there are about ten formal criteria that the two processes have in common, among them division of labour, use of technical media, mass production and rationalization,
that a thorough analysis of this theory shows several dimensions: historical, cultural, sociological, anthropological, economical and educational.
All of these descriptive elements suggest that this theory is well-grounded.
My main point was to show that such an entirely different structure of education requires new and unique learning and teaching behaviors. This is a genuine pedagogical aspect. It is important to become aware of it. I intended to show aspects so far unknown in academia. Why can education be distributed to many students who live apart from each other, and why can education be mass-produced and distributed everywhere? These are things that were very challenging and educationally of great importance. I became aware of a downright revolution in education, not noticed up to then, and my theory wanted to point to this extraordinary development.
Let me explain this theory further by referring to two presentations at this workshop. Børje Holmberg referred to ten criteria that the production of goods and the production of education have in common, among them division of labour, use of technical media, mass production, rationalization, the use of scientific approaches and scientific methods. Betty Collis demonstrated in her keynote speech how much scientific knowledge and how many scientific methods are used in order to secure the quality of distance education. The application of scientific knowledge is relevant for the development of industrial production processes.
I should like to point to aspects of the theory that have been completely ignored. “Industrialized education” not only means what I have just described, it means much more. Distance education is a product of the industrialization of society. Only “industrial man” was able and willing to study at a distance, in the same way as “post-industrial man” is able and willing to study in online learning. The change of the very nature of knowledge is a product and consequence of industrialized learning. The emergence of entirely new forms of learning in online learning is another result of this development. My theory focuses on these radical changes, which had never been seen and experienced before. I am interested in these significant pedagogical changes, and not in organizational issues. If you have ever looked at the table of contents of my book, Distance Education in Transition (Peters, 2004), you will see that all articles deal with pedagogical issues that became significant because of the industrialization of education and they do not deal mainly with organizational strategies.
Why is it adequate to interpret distance education by applying this theory? It helps us to understand the reality of learning and teaching at a distance. It raises our awareness of its specific character, the essence of this form of learning, and of the social processes on which they are based. It is now crystal clear that this form differs from all pre-industrial forms of learning and teaching, it relates distance education to the history of learning in a special way, to the world of industrial production, to commercialism, consumerism – and to the humanitarian mission of distance education. It helps us to imagine possible future developments of learning.
The theory was conceived in the middle of the 1960s and first published in 1968 (Peters 1968, 1973). German scholars clearly did not appreciate it as they were not familiar with distance education and its specific problems at all at that time. But what was more important: they were seized by the 1968 students’ movement, which focused on the emancipation of traditional students from suppression by academic hierarchies. They felt that social processes cannot be planned and calculated at all. They rejected the use of technology in general, but especially in teaching and learning. There was no response from German-speaking educators.
The first English description of the theory was published by Mackenzie and Christensen (1971). Sewart, Keegan and Holmberg (eds.) (1983) published a translation of the respective chapter of my book “Die didaktische Struktur des Fernunterrichts” (The Pedagogical Structure of Distance Education) (Peters 1973). Keegan’s book “Foundation of Distance Education” made a lasting impact on distance educators. In it he devoted a whole chapter to the industrialization of distance education (Keegan, 1986) and discussed it at international conferences.
At that time, the theory was especially convincing to experts who were involved in establishing open universities in the 1970s and 1980s. These new universities combined technical, organizational, management and pedagogical innovations. Open universities appeared to be the empirical proof of the theory, as they are the most industrialized distance learning institutions. Keegan (1994) reinforced this impact by editing a book that carried selected and translated writings of this author. It is subtitled “The Industrialization of Teaching and Learning”. In subsequent years his strong impulses in the literature provoked animated international discussions. Since then the theory has been dealt with in all scholarly books on distance education and is included in many digitized MA courses on Distance Education, the last and most striking example being the virtual MDE course “Foundations of Distance Education” jointly offered by the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) and the University of Oldenburg.
Michael Graham Moore on his theory of transactional distance
Historical perspective: I went to Africa in 1963 after three boring years as a high school teacher in England. I asked my boss what my job is going to be, and he said my job is to do the education of adults, and if no one else is doing it, you can do it. I had a quarter of Kenya and nobody else was doing it, so I did. That is where I discovered the power of radio, and I discovered correspondence education. I decided to mention correspondence when I heard Dr Otto Peters’ a few minutes ago emphasis on correspondence. That’s also were I began.
In 1965 I spent a month on board a ship coming around the Cape of Good Hope writing a correspondence course. That led me into contact with one of the great American university correspondence schools. And through that I ended up going to the U.S.
When I did my doctorate in education in the U.S., I found that in the literature there was virtually nothing about the pedagogy of what we then called correspondence education, or the teaching and learning through the radio, which in Africa I had found be such a powerful medium. So I began to do research on this same phenomenon of when people are at a distance as we now call it, but we did not then: What’s going on, on the part of the learners and on the part of the teachers. Now I suppose I am a bit biased because it was more on the teaching than on the learning side then, now of course the two are separable.
I gave a presentation in 1972, Dr. Holmberg was then the vice-president of ICCE [International Council for Correspondence Education] and that was my coming out party. I gave a presentation on what I had done in the two years previously. I defined what happened in a classroom as “contiguous teaching”, and I defined distance teaching. I defined “distance teaching” as “instructional methods in which the teaching behaviors are executed apart from the learning behaviors, so that communication …must be facilitated by print, electronic, mechanical, or other devices” (Moore 1972).
I said we need a theory in the English language, we did not have a theory, it was not in the literature and I identified the macro factors, which was the terms that I discovered in my study of comparative education, which at that time was a growing field also. So we need to describe and define and discriminate between the various components of this field
To illustrate the theory of transactional distance, I am building on a presentation by Marrily Stover (UMUC). She has described what I did then, -- which was looking at a large sample of what were called American independent study programmes, delivered through various technologies.
Moore started by gathering a large sample of “independent study” programs. These included programs delivered by:
Independent learning on campus
I had classified them according to the extent to which there was individualisation on the part of the student. I then conceived the idea of constructive interaction, but one of my advisors did not like me using the word interaction for reasons I can’t go into, but dialogue is essentially constructive interaction between teacher and learner, so I classified these programmes, although here it shows technologies, typically programmes delivered through one technology tend to fall into a cluster above or below those or another, although in reality they would also be considered overlapped.
He classified them by the extent to which generally the learning program was individualized
More individualized programs were usually:
Less individualized programs were:
It broke about something like this. And bear in mind, this analysis was of over a thousand documents describing programs before we had computers, so I had the help of a librarian, and bless her I don’t know where she is now. She helped me organise all these cards, with all the data on, and we came up with this kind of classification of these programmes according to the extent to which they had this phenomenon of a dialogue and structure. The more structured being the less individualised, and the less structured vice-versa. These are continuous variables, these are not discreet packages. A programme has more dialogue or less dialogue, not either or, or the other. To put it on a graph it looks like this:
It’s quite simple, showing transactional distance (as I came to call it in the 80’s), which I can’t at the moment elaborate on, but the change of name came at the time of the publication (Moore 1980); and again showing how they stand and vary according to technology,
Now, if we rotate this diagram we can move on to the second set of variables that I was interested in, which is from the learner’s side, and that was the extent to which the learner has control or is not going to have control, or what I called autonomy, because I was very excited like most people in the early 70’s by the humanistic psychology - I had read Carl Rogers (1969) and his book “Freedom to Learn” and Malcom Knowles that kind of stuff. So to what extent was the student involved or engaged in the decision making about what he or she was learning.
I had a typology that showed autonomy of the student in deciding what to learn, how to do it, how much to do it:
This led to, and leads to hypotheses consistent with what my colleagues have been saying. As I said that in my front statement about theory, if the theory is not telling you what is not known then it is really not doing us anything. So whole kinds of predictions can come or hypotheses can come and form the interrelationship shown by the model.
Examples of hypothesized relationships of autonomy, structure and dialog
When autonomy is low the need for structure is high When structure is low the need for autonomy is high
Programs with low dialog require a high degree of learner autonomy.
Programs with low dialog and low structure require a higher degree of learner autonomy.
Learners with high autonomy require less dialog, less structure
Highly autonomous learners may engage in auto-dialog
Course designers can develop very highly structured courses, with little room for learner autonomy in setting goals, execution or evaluation.
Or can develop very unstructured courses, allowing learners to exercise a high degree of autonomy.
An autonomous learner could put together a highly structured learning program for him/herself — or could make a loosely structured program.
Another way of looking at it is as a set of platforms … this is another illustration of the model:
As you step away from the origin, and then the steps increase in height this is the autonomy permitted or acquired by the teaching method. Different teaching programmes can be viewed as glasses stacked on these tiers, the glass represents the degree of the autonomy that’s permitted and the liquid then shows the autonomy that’s required. For instance, a course taught online, technology that allows a low degree of structure and a high degree of dialogue, permitting a low degree of learner autonomy, could be designed with a high structure and a low dialogue and requires a high degree of learner autonomy. It depends on the designers. The fact, that what we consider is the capacity of the learner for how high he or she can reach. So using the construct we see that we can design courses for different degrees of autonomy by varying the dialogue and structure, and from a research point of view we can explore and test many interactions within and between these variables, which gets us back to the original investigations.
I want to mention one elaboration: Farhad Saba, San Diego State University, has done more work than anyone in further exploring this, and his is a rather complicated model based on systems’ dynamics. He is working on the hypothesis of the relationship of transaction systems to dialogue and structuring transaction distance. He’s come up with some mathematical formula which he can model on a computer (Saba and Shearer 1994).
And, close to finally, I hope I am not offending Dr Peters the way I have drawn this, but I wanted to show that, according to Saba again, transaction distance lies in bigger systems.
Mine is only a pedagogical theory, it is only about teaching and learning – it is interesting that Dr Peters emphasizes the same commitment to teaching and learning and not to organisations, but I do suggest that some theory still with larger systems, can I say he is dealing with teaching and learning but on a somewhat more macro level than I am, I am certainly relating only learning and teaching through this process of dialogue, I focused on the role of autonomy but there are many other variables inside the learner that may be of importance and of interest, I see Dr Holmberg’s invaluable contribution being more focused on the teacher and the teacher’s relationship to the learner, and that’s how I put empathy in here … The new frontier of course for all of us is the interaction and dialogue within and between learning groups, which is my note at the bottom there. With new interactive technology we have the potential for dialogue between learners and a new form of learner-learner autonomy that reduces the transaction distance for each student. I will hold my concluding comment until the conclusion.