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How distance changes everything: slides from my keynote at the University of Ottawa's 'Scaffolding a Transformative Transition to Distance and Online Learning' symposium

These are the slides from my keynote at the University of Ottawa's "Scaffolding a Transformative Transition to Distance and Online Learning" symposium today. In the presentation I discussed why distance learning really is different from in-person learning, focusing primarily on the fact that they are the motivational inverse of one another. In-person teaching methods evolved in response to the particular constraints and boundaries imposed by physics, and consist of many inventions - pedagogical and otherwise - that are counter-technologies designed to cope with the consequences of teaching in a classroom, a lot of which are not altogether wise. Many of those constraints do not exist online, and yet we continue to do very similar things, especially those that control and dictate what students should do, as well as when, and how they should do it. This makes no sense, and is actually antagonistic to the natural flow of online learning. I provided a few simple ideas and prompts for thinking about how to go more with the flow.

The presentation was only 20 minutes of a lively and inspiring hour-long session, which was fantastic fun and provided me with many interesting questions and a chance to expand further on the ideas.


  • This explains so much about your COMP 266 course structure and why you chose to format it the way you did. I especially loved your "proudest teaching moment", goes to show how much someone can learn when there isn't a specific person 'telling them how'. I have found a lot of the time the act of searching for an answer teaches me more than someone giving me the answer.

    Trevor K November 21, 2020 - 1:49pm

  • Thanks Nicolosus - it's very nice to hear confirmation that it (at least sometimes) works!

    And yes, that process of searching is so important, and so powerful in helping us to learn to learn.

    It's also sometimes important, though, when the going gets rough and you feel you need it, to be able to find someone who will tell you how or, at least, will help you to find out whether you are heading in the right directions. That remains one of my biggest challenges because it relies on having access to teachers (formal or otherwise) who care about you, the subject, and how to teach, but who also (and this is where it gets really tricky) have the time to do so at the time you need the help. It's difficult to do that economically and I'm still working on that one!


    Jon Dron November 22, 2020 - 12:09pm

  • Thank you Prof. Jon,

    Those slides are interesting, I like the comparison between controlling and liberation patterns and I also like how you are able to use this approach within your courses.

    I learned how to learn from you, and I hope to learn how to teach as well.

    Rania Arbash November 23, 2020 - 4:29am

  • Thanks Rania: though I tend to reuse a lot of slides in my talks, that one was new in this presentation, so I'm glad that it resonated.

    Over 20 years ago I wanted to call my PhD (which involved the creation of a social bookmarking system designed to help the crowd to teach itself) 'Getting rid of teachers' but my supervisors (wisely) advised against it. In fact, it was exactly the opposite of what I was really doing, which was capitalizing on the fact that we are all teachers, even when we don't mean to be.  Though software can help to amplify and guide that process, I think it is also implicit in a lot of the human-enacted technologies of teaching: the things we normally refer to as pedagogies. A big part of much effective teaching - especially online - is not about telling people stuff or making them do stuff, but about helping to create conditions that make it easier for them all to learn from one another.

    One of the best side-effects my particular approach to doing that is that I wind up learning more from my students than they learn from me, so thank you for teaching me!

    Jon Dron November 23, 2020 - 10:37am

  • This all has bee encouraging for me to read! And yes you are correct, we all do at times need a little direction, can't overlook that fact, especially with some of us who get disctracted easily, and run down rabbit trails that, while not directly bad for our current study topic, are not exactly good for it either. I am one of those people, I also love to learn, and I want to learn EVERYTHING!


    Keep doing what you are doing Prof. Dron, it is encouraging to see and I just learned a little about teaching, and hope to take that with me when I start to teach others as well.

    Trevor K November 24, 2020 - 1:06pm

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