Isolation and the distance learner

A couple of years ago I was asked to lead a seminar at the LSE for their Network-Ed series on the needs of the distance learner. Arguably the biggest challenge the distance learner faces is isolation, the effects of which are often underestimated not only by the students themselves but also those who design and run distance learning courses. It is difficult for someone at the hub to understand what the world looks like at the end of a spoke.  In order to illustrate the crippling effects of isolation to the LSE delegates, I told the story of the first Golden Globe race in 1968. Nine yachtsmen started. Five threw in the towel after a matter of weeks, leaving four in the race. One hanged himself halfway round, after increasingly elaborate attempts to fake his navigation log. Another lost his sense of purpose after one circumnavigation and carried on another half turn to Taihiti where he remained on yoga retreat. The guy who finished in second place killed himself two years later.

So I just heard the news that Robin Knox-Johnston – the winner of that first race – has nailed it again, coming third in the Route de Rhum at the age of 75. What an absolute legend. It needs to be borne in mind that Knox-Johnston is an incredibly unusual individual; he came through that first race – eight or nine months entirely alone, dealing with whatever the sea threw at him – mentally and physically unscathed, with the help of a stiff upper lip and the occasional stiff whiskey, while the other entrants suffered what can only be described as mental disintegration.

Please – the distance learners out there, and those who teach them – don’t underestimate the impact of isolation. Teachers, give time and space for socialisation; don’t leave it as an optional extra. Learners, make friends. You will need them.

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