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G. Petrie, V. Lazo-Wilson

Eastern Washington University (UNITED STATES)
Distance courses created for those living in instability have a unique pattern. The courses are created by and taught by developers and instructors who live in stable contexts—very likely ‘top of the pyramid’ countries experiencing economic strength and power. However, they are taken by students who are either living through war or occupation or some other destabilizing factor. In other words, these courses are created with a greater gap between instructors and students than usually found in educational situations. This gap may have grave significance, for we know that the greater the amount of distance that students feel from their instructors, the less likely they are to learn (Short, et al, 1976) and the less likely they are in particular to learn a second or foreign language (Schumann, 1978). Might courses created by instructors and course developers in the U.S. intended for students living in instability—especially instability due to conflict with the U.S.—be inherently less likely to succeed because of the likelihood of students failing to feel connected with teachers? Which factors most impact these courses?

This presentation explores these questions by presenting a qualitative case study of the impact of perceived risk on course developers’ choices of technologies for an online distance course intended for students in an unstable situation. The course, an English as a foreign language course, was created for Iraqi university students by a course development team at a U.S. university. It was initially funded by a United States Department of State grant but the program was discontinued due to increasing action in Iraq. The six course developers had access to a large variety of technologies with a range of promise for carrying social presence (Short, et al, 1976) and reducing social distance (Schumann, 1978) between the U.S. instructors and students in Iraq. These options included online courseware (Blackboard), audio podcasting (via iTunesU) and the use of images (Powerpoint). It was expected that the course developers would make their choices about technology incorporation solely on the basis of the most promise for communicating social presence.

What was discovered in this study was that feelings of risk among the course developers impacted their technology choices often in ways that reduced social presence. The novelty of the course development project in combination with several other factors including what was experienced as a bureaucratic mess, and a constant flow of ambivalent information about who the prospective students would be led to what Beck (1992) referred to as a ‘risk society’. Within this small sub-culture, the course developers each experienced their relationship with risk differently. One element of this experience was grappling with the need to have some general idea of who the prospective students would be. An underlying fear for some was that the Iraqi students themselves might prove to put the project or the instructors at risk; those who felt most at risk struggled with both how to enhance their social presence and lessen social distance at the same time that they suppressed their identity. The technology of audio podcasting, which allowed for the vehicle of the human voice but allowed teachers to remain faceless, took on prime importance. We conclude that perceived risk while creating a course for those experiencing instability may itself put projects in danger of failure.