By Terry Anderson, Professor Emeritus, Athabasca University, Canada
Human survival and evolution makes extensive use of boundaries. Boundaries allow us to structure and to feel control and mastery of a safe subset of our environment – that which we call home. The protective walls of the walls of the housing compound, the moat and oaken doors of the castle and the campus gate not only provide safety but also serve to demarcate and define our spaces. Boundaries are instruments to filter what or who is allowed to enter but as an unfortunate side-effect impair easy exit. In higher education boundaries serve to create a refuge for scholarship, a place where ideas and ideals –even those not shared by political leadership or majority opinion can exist and be developed. But boundaries also serve to exclude – to shut out the dangerous and heretical ideas and those people from whom we wish to exclude our privilege. While protecting us they also restrain the free flow of ideas and knowledge, thus creating a comfortable and known space, while containing our experience of the unknown.
Recent communications technologies however take little heed of campus walls. This capacity to use technology (print and post) was exploited over 150 years ago by distance educators. The boundary of physical space was breached by these educators as importantly temporal bounds were relaxed. From the students’ perspective, time could be shifted as well as place to account for work pressures or family responsibilities, however neither campus nor distance provision could quite wean itself from rigid, often semester length terms of the calendar cycles of campus life. Thus, the distance education/online environment increased access, while still retaining many of the familiar social structures of campus education, as it evolved.