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Online Learning and it’s Geographies

Online Learning and its Geographies web

The presence of geography in information has an integral reality about it which is not always recognised and appreciated.  The reasons for this are myriad, but the extent to which the geography is unequivocal in its presence, ingrained in the context, and uninvited but still impossible to exclude, have made it seem like a seamless part, forever poised at the edges of our thinking but more often ignored and waiting in vain for the curtain call of recognition.

The geography of the moment or of the experience is, however, superbly significant, whether we understand or recognise it or not.  Your favourite restaurant attracts you because of all the things you see, partake in and experience while you are there enjoying the moment.  Not much thought is devoted to the core reality of its geography:- the physical factors around its location, the area which surrounds it, its physical accessibility, and the atmosphere dependant on its location rather than the managed ambiance.  These often ignored realities are mostly left to be forever poised on the invisible edge in spite of their benign significance.  Take them away though, and the restaurant could as well close its doors. The tempered sodality of these intangibles eludes our everyday concern and yet it is a core to what we know, do, and experience every day.

Geographies of human experience was called, as a research context, into the limelight by the research done by Anderson (2004) who found that the women he interviewed during his walking interviews were significantly influenced in the responses they offered to questions asked of them by the physical environment they were walking through.  Further research into this phenomenon revealed that the responses were so geographically dependant that it was even influenced by the buildings they were passing during these walking interviews.  The findings from this research led to the “Walking Interview” becoming an accepted scientific method for conducting of qualitative research.

Anderson (2004) explored how a place and the geographical context it provides, could lend understanding and insight into the lives of the individual the research is focused on.  The “Walking Interview” method of qualitative research is based on accepting that our understanding of people and their lives will be enriched when we know more about them and their circumstances.  The walking interview illustrated beyond any doubt that the content and quality of the conversations people have is influenced by the area they walk in and by the geographic realities present in the area.

When we think of online learning, we often think of this as a clean process; give them access, give them study materials, and let them write the assessments.  Fairly straightforward and simple.

In a recent Daily Maverick (2020) article, the esteemed journalist Stephen Grootes, offered exactly that point of view as a launching pad for the fatally unvaried argument seeping into our national narrative that the entire COVID-19 event and its impact on the education system could be cleansed of all negatives by simply allowing the students to stay at home out of harm’s way and with Internet access to jumpstart their consignment to academic excellence without anything else that needs doing.

Graham, de Sabbata and Zook (2015) significantly pointed out that “… geographic augmentations are much more than just representations of places: they are part of the place itself; they shape it rather than simply reflect it”.  The authors proceeded to suggest that there is an undeniable fusing of the availability and access to informational materials with the spatial realities in which this fusing occurs and which has a major impact on it.

This is much more than just a significant theoretical statement which may be left for exploration of academics who may be inclined to something which, to the man in the street, may seem like “… an interesting but so what?” bit of theory.  The rub of all of this lies in the unstated but significantly powerful extrapolation which tells us that the physical, material places we find ourselves in could unalterably affect our learning about and understanding of the world we live in.  This is an insight which is much more than what we have always known and said when we referred to “Man is shaped by the circumstances of his upbringing”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had many side-effects and one of these is the extent to which it has exposed rampant and debilitating inequality in the country.  The environment in which pupils and university students have to do their studies does not tell us anything that may aid the quality of our night rest.

The students that Mr. Grootes wants to “… go online and get on with it…” have significant geographical realities which are keeping them from doing just that.

The geography of place – South Africa is a place where the term “15 people to a room” has nothing to do with describing an intimate cocktail party at some suburban dwelling, but rather the daily living realities of a major part of our population.   Imagine not only living under those conditions but having to study, read, think, write, and produce wholesome academic musings in it.

The geography of language – English is the language of teaching and learning is our country.  It is not the language of the soul of our country.  For most of the students, this could be a third or even fourth language. English is primarily idiomatically stressed. It is not easy for anyone who did not come to it at their mother’s knee.  Opportunities for misreading and misunderstanding are myriad – there could be a mere backward movement of stress for a verb to become a noun and an act to become a thing.  Your best intention at producing a meaningful statement could, at a stroke, become refuse – an insurmountable pile of garbage.

The geography of content – we know very well that we assume the meaning of content based on our experience and exposure to our own reality.  When the reality we have been exposed to is mired in depraved existence amongst others who have not had it any better, our exposure to anything approaching the universality of a common understanding of the academic theory we are exposed to is irrevocably compromised.  ‘I think, therefore I am’ could perhaps be less of a universal statement of truth than ‘I experience, therefore I am’.

The geography of participation – learning may be primarily about the use of the written word, but it is in engaging with the written word that we become tolerant of the need to relate to the written word and what it tells or teaches us.  The distance learner needs the online experience to be augmented for the learning to become meaningful and relatable.  There is no “get online and get on with it” here.  It is in sharing what is read and extrapolating the facts into personal meaning through discussion and application that the learning becomes meaning.  This is where the quality of the online experience is influenced by the simple equation – is it through online learning or with online learning?

Learning and education in general are more than the sum of its parts.  Effective learning and education is a concept which propels this statement into the realm of the hyperbole.  It has, at the base of its requirement and core to even approaching the understanding of its place in our world, the currently woefully inadequate participatory conceptualisation of civil society which dominates its being – it is essentially about the wholehearted and unconditional support of civil society and public participation.  It is not at all something that could be parcelled out to students to get on with.

Anderson, J. (2004). “Talking whilst walking: A geographical archaeology of knowledge”. Area, 36 (3), 254-61.

Graham, M., de Sabbata, S. and Zook, M. A. (2015). “Towards a Study of Information Geographies: (Im)Mutable Augmentations and a Mapping of the Geographies of Information”. Geo Geography and Environment 2(1). Available form here [Accessed on 31 July 2020] 

Grootes, S. (2020). “Online learning to the rescue” The Daily Maverick. Available at <https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-05-06-online-learning-to-the-rescue/#gsc.tab=0> [Accessed on 30 July 2020]