Fred Brooks’ landmark 1986 article No Silver Bullet introduced the “essential difficulties” of computer science. These essential difficulties are problems with the field of computer science that are so deeply engrained into the field that they are symptoms of the field of computer science itself. The equivalent “essential difficulties” of remote education are dominated by the fact that distance learning occurs at a distance. The remote nature of the interaction introduces numerous problems with interaction.

Geographic Distance

With the recent increases in ICT (Information Communication Technology), geographic distance has become synonymous with technological distance. The increase in ICT has allowed for easier remote communication from a distance. ICT is an enabling technology without which regular communication at a distance would be impractical. However, technological advancements in ICT are not sufficient to render geographic distance a non-problem. For one, time zones present a very real problem in offering online education programs. It is impractical to have real-time virtual office hours in locations all around the world continuously. We have begun to rely on new sophisticated forms of interaction (e.g. videoconferencing, Skype, etc.) as methods for information transfer without appreciating their limitations.

“employing ICT as a central tool for knowledge sharing risks losing key elements, including body language and gestures, feelings, intuition and context, all of which play a great role in the sharing of tacit knowledge”

Hartig et al.

Indeed, when giving a lecture over the internet a professor will no longer be able to pick up on physical cues from the audience. A turned head or a long sigh often indicates boredom or lack of interest in the subject matter. We see a significant decrease in the avenues of information sharing between educator and learner. Increased geographic distance causes changes in the way that humans interact. With increased technological and geographic distance we see two main barriers that exist to inhibit information sharing:

  1.  Reduced frequency of interaction.
  2. Changing means of interaction.

Reduced Frequency of Interaction

As you increase geographic distance, frequency of interaction between parties decreases. As Julian Hartig explains in Learning and Innovation at a Distance, there is a logarithmic decay in the frequency of interaction with increased geographic distance.While this trend makes logical sense without the use of ICT, it is slightly surprising that the trend continues even with the advent of cheap and efficient communication platforms.

Frequency of interaction decreases with increased distance despite the increase in ICT. Hartig, Learning and Innovation at a Distance

This decreased interaction proves to be a negative in the educational world. Paul Mitiguy strongly states, “To remove a human is a super-big negative.” Other professors in the field similarly feel skeptical about a future where remote learning replaces on-campus education. A large-scale research study of over 35,000 students proves the importance of frequent, high-quality interaction on the table below:

Comparison Chart

From Robert Bernard, "How Does Distance Education Compare with Classroom Instruction?" http://rer.sagepub.com/content/74/3/379

Regardless of what medium is used (asynchronous or synchronous distance education or classroom education), the studies show that one of the biggest factors that promote students’ achievement in the class is interaction with the instructor or other students, either face-to-face or by phone. The study further reveals that interaction is the biggest factor in achievement, based on how well students did in different context and how they felt about it.

Decreased frequency of interaction causes:

  1. Lack of personal relationships with professors
  2. Professors cannot get real-time feedback while teaching. Professors lack visual cues.
  3. No community to struggle through classes with. Paul Mitiguy states, “Humans are social animals.” In online communities, people have to go out of there way to establish friendships whereas communities arise naturally in personal contexts.
  4. No direct encouragement from peers. It might be harder to sit down and work with a friend. Peter Norvig, co-teacher for Stanford’s www.ai-class.com states, “if you can do it to whenever you want, then you can do it tomorrow.”

Changing Means of Interaction

In addition to decreased frequency of interaction, learning at a distance requires changing means of interaction between student and teacher. When interacting in person, the student sees, feels, hears, and senses everything that the teacher explains. All senses are engaged. Some teachers even play music sometimes during parts of the class to maintain consistent engagement.  When interacting virtually, typically only audio or visual learning pathways are opened up. The student is unable to get a full holistic picture of what the teacher is explaining. We hope that with increased virtual reality technology we will see better consistency in the way that people interact remotely. However, current distance learning platforms face the challenge of communicating content in a consistent format as a lecturer would normally deliver a class engaging as many senses as possible.