Fly on the Wall – Islands of Education

The classic film Papillon illustrates the life of a convict who, immured on an island, counts waves crashing onto the shore and eventually realizes that one out of every seven will carry his raft to freedom. Distance education likewise recounts isolation in a way that no other life experience touches. We students choose our sentence, and when things go well we even adore it. Face to face with our course material we are reborn, like a butterfly out of its cocoon, and there is nothing more liberating to know than that it wasn’t the classmates or even the professor who brought us to fruition. It was us and us alone, with help from our tutors along the way. In a sense being marooned is the essence of both the power and the pitfalls of distance education.

?Wilson!? was a call to arms for people who always wanted an imaginary friend. Love him or hate him, Tom Hanks portrayed something essentially human in the film Castaway. The script author, William Boyles, writes of a man whose impeccably authoritarian desire for structure and order falls to pieces when he survives a plane crash. Swept onto an island, he faces his mortality and discovers himself. Most humans would starve in short order and the isolation would be unbearable. So, too, would most students. But ?Chuck? survives his ordeal by systematically rediscovering how to survive. Unlike students in brick and mortar universities, whose hands are held by wonderful mentors at many steps along the way, we distance students must go it alone and forge our own methodologies for academic survival. We become better for it and it isn’t easy. But it is rewarding.

Lucky to be alive, and arriving on an island the he makes into a home, Chuck learns to use his credit card to scrape limpets off of a rock (Boyles, online). His nourishment comes not from the symbolic power of money but from the visceral power the card provides. Where time had hitherto been his Lord, and the Northern Lights something he ignored, he becomes aware of meteor showers (Boyles, online). When we students are face to face with our course material, with no preponderance of other people physically in our setting, the textbook becomes a direct reflection of our intellectual visage. We are forced to meld with it and it becomes part of us. We learn to see our mental horizons anew. Somehow, as students, we succeed in our courses because the tools of daily life are framed in a new way. And isn’t education supposed to be about learning to see the world with new eyes?

Rebirth comes in many forms, and critical thinking is the touchstone. For consideration let us ponder the “truth” of statistics as they relate to the film Papillon: “Statistical calculations, however, suggest that in a chaotic sea one wave in every 20 may be about twice the average height; one in every thousand, three times the average height; and that one in every 300,000 waves may be a monster four times as big as usual.” If one were to reduce a story of survival to that level, life might become impossibly dull. Yet we students live not in fiction but in a real world, on an island of our own making. We know in our hearts and minds that what we are accomplishing has value that is incommensurable, at times, with social expectations. We learn to assess and understand the world around us in a way that others may not be privy to.

Arts majors in particular are faced with cursorial allusions to “life smarts” over and against “book smarts”. Yet how many people who preach this gospel shift rapidly and vapidly to complaints about their own existence? We distance students know well that sometimes virtue is its own reward, and the virtue of a post-secondary education outweighs the dull thud of the mathematical equations that many seek to reduce the universe to. We learn this alone. And the learning empowers us as a star empowers its solar system. We become constellations of intellectual beauty. If that seems a bit overblown just consider how you felt as a person before you began your journey with Athabasca as compared to how you feel today.

Absolutely there are pitfalls to distance education, even when we are successful at it. At the best of times we learn and engage with new material but we rarely do we have direct contact with others of our cohort. I am reminded of Robinson Crusoe who, upon encountering a set of footprints along the beach of his own desert island, is unsure whether they are of his own making or another person. (Defoe, online). Easily we can circle ourselves to death, like a puzzled panther. This is why, as a MAIS student, the online forums and interactions are so vital. At the undergraduate level students probably could use more such interactions because sometimes your daily life and Facebook friends are not going to engage with the material you are immersed in. Yet, the pride and prejudice implicated by our studies is surely outweighed by the absolute joy of accomplishment which the completion of each and every course entails.

I hope I’ve given a fair testimony to the pleasures and challenges of distance education. In all honesty, my time as an Athabasca University student has been, and continues to be, one of the most enriching experience of my life.

Broyles, W. (1998). Cast Away. Daily Script. Retrieved from
Defoe, D. (1719). Robinson Crusoe. American Retrieved from
McWilliams, B. (1997). Counting the devil’s waves. The Irish Times. Retrieved from

Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.