Getting the Memo—Content And Medium in Distance Education

AU's Foray into Aacdemic Research Forums

Getting the Memo—Content And Medium in Distance Education

Technical glitches have a fateful feel to them: it’s like Murphy’s Law (where anything that can go wrong will go wrong) meets the original Jurassic Park (where a chaos principle ensures that a teensy bugaboo leads to an infinite regress of larger and larger foul-ups).  So it was that when AU last month conducted an online research forum the early going was met with technical difficulties.  A traffic snarl or weather event could have colluded to make an in-person meeting difficult too but there was a certain sense of predictability when things didn’t start off smoothly.  But you know what?  That’s fine, natural, and AU is always progressing in its delivery of education and educational methods.

Jacques Derrida might have nodded in appreciation of the trickiness of an online event.  Maybe he’d point us to his book Paper Machines where he ponders how archives and events can seem vanishingly distant in a computer era: the book’s syllabus states that he asks “whether there can be a virtual event or a virtual archive” (online).  This begs a timeless question: what does it mean when something happens and why are we sure we understand technology’s utilitarian role in how things get that way?

Eventually, without even adjusting our sets, the research forum proceeded apace.  By this time the Fly on the Wall had departed the virtual sphere to attend his day job in agriculture, where irrigation season commences, and technical issues involve coyotes chewing polyurethane hosing and deer stepping on PVC pipes.  More tactile but no less frustrating; like life itself, technical glitches happen but how often do we question technology’s attendant assumption that it composes merely a set of tools?  Leafing through a reprint of a social science journal article is different than scrolling down a page but speaking on the phone isn’t so far removed from a Zoom conversation or lecture – or is it?

Properly assessing what technology is best for a given goal allows us to maximize any given medium.  And here AU did a great job so that we could all view some videos of presenters and their upcoming content (link below).  There’s something powerful about seeing a person as they’d appear in a classroom setting, delivering a lecture in a way that’d be basically familiar all the way back to ancient Alexandria, Lesbos or Hippo.  In fact, minus the invariable snafu, it’d be great for AU to produce more research presentations and interactive events for students, alumni and, as they say at Summerland, BC’s Agriculture Research Station: Joe Public (gender pronoun s/he).

Locally, Okanagan College has outstanding in-person speaker series’ that, in my experience, are well-attended and stimulating events.  The more AU reaches out (maybe by involving some Canadian celebrities and/or CFL football players to go along with their excellent Athabasca U ad campaign at stadiums) the more the excellence of our school will be felt.  Unlike regional schools or colleges with certain focuses, AU truly represents a cross section of the intellectual and scholastic community.  Students can study (and give Zoom presentations) from an igloo or a treehouse or a yacht or a forest and, in this at times maddening age of viral videos and would-be pundits, an expansion of authentic university research forums that are more in-depth than your average TED talk might just hit the spot.

While Derrida in his own words stated: “I believe in the value of the book, which keeps something irreplaceable, and in the necessity of fighting to secure its respect” his outstanding career as a public lecturer shows that he also valued forums for expression and discussion (online).  While nothing beats eye contact in a room with a speaker, the disembodied realm of online forums certainly adds a new shade of meaning to our sense of ourselves and our concepts.  Derrida suggested that all that seems unified, such as meanings, can be deconstructed and then reassembled into something different, true, and new.  Maybe we’re all merely facets of our personal enigma even if we’re in a room with one another.

In fact, Derrida’s concept of deconstruction aptly fits with our times where communication and education are being transformed by new technologies; that is, new ways of being human in relation to one another and even with ourselves.  “This is what deconstruction is made of: not the mixture but the tension between memory, fidelity, the preservation of something that has been given to us, and, at the same time heterogenity, something absolutely new and a break” (Derrida, 6).  Wherever education is going within technology, we must never forget that the contradictions of learning from others while still being ourselves has a third component: mediation by the tools of learning, be they stone writing tablets in ancient times or laptop computers at present.  We become, in a sense, the process of our learning.  As distance students the hope is that we can become more humanly connected with our cohort and instructors with the aid of more visual contact through the somewhat mystical orb (akin to the Ancient Greek’s oracles who people visited to receive prophesies) of the blue glow of a computer screen.

Finally, it’s worth recalling that, just as we are what we eat, we are also at once ourselves and an Other to ourself – each thought we think is an inner dialogue, or dispute or lecture, through which our narrative of being unfolds.  Derrida adds that to really be aware of ourselves and our roles in life we must “take into account this impossibility of being one with oneself.  It is because I am not one with myself that I can speak with the other and address the other” (14).  In other words, to communicate in any manner implies that we are somewhat disembodied within ourselves as we taste and consider new ideas.  By this token, our online presence, though only part of our whole, merely reflects a larger state of being where we are each, in any instance, not one but many, never giving or receiving all of a person in any given moment.  Just ask yourself “what do I think of that” and you see how we are never all there, per se, even if we were in a room with a given lecturer.

Kudos to our beloved institution for broadening its digital scope.  After all, if any university needs to maximize its digital footprint it’s a school formerly categorized under the snail mail term: correspondence education.  With research forums we can achieve a deeper correspondence with our learning as well as with others who would be distant geographically, if not intellectually.

Without further ado, here’s the aforementioned summary videos of just some of the presenters from the recent AU research forum.  Let’s hope there’s many more such events to come!

Derrida, J.  In Caputo, J.D.  (1997).  Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida.  USA: Fordham University.
Derrida, J.  ‘Paper Machine Quotes’. Retrieved from
Derrida, J.  (2005).  Paper Machine.  Stanford University Press.  Retrieved from
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