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So far from you... By Jeni Harden

Like many of you I have spent the last few months redeveloping my courses to be delivered online. There is so much I could say about that but here I thought it might be interesting to share some thoughts on the idea of ‘transactional distance’. At the start of lockdown in March I signed up for a short course run by some of our most expert digital educators. It was great to ‘have a go’ but also to do this as a student, even if only for a few weeks. Transactional distance was one of the ideas we explored.

Transactional distance (Moore 1993; 2013) describes the psychological and communicational distance that may arise between learners and teachers and that can be detrimental for students’ learning and experience on a course. Distance is not exclusively about the physical, but includes also the temporal communication, emotional, political and social aspects related to the dialogue between teachers and learners and to the structure of the programme. We are all feeling the impact of physical distancing at the moment and it very odd to not see our students and to teach to digital tiles rather than live bodies. However, as I read more about this I began to see a different aspect of transactional distance that related to my feelings as a sociologist teaching in undergraduate medicine.

In this role I often feel that I have to sell, persuade, justify and defend my part of the MBCHB because it is, for some, not real medicine, the nice to know but not need to know….All the things we have discussed so much here in BeSST over the years. I began to see this as a degree of transactional distance between us in terms of our understanding of what medicine is and what medical students should learn, that can result in problems of engagement, satisfaction and understanding.

This transactional distance also has an impact on my experience as an educator; I can feel at various times in a day, week, month or year like an outsider, an explorer, a servant to the medical elite, an underdog, a maverick. All of these things represent states of distance.

I became am curious about how online learning could offer opportunities to bridge this distance. It is early days but I see most promise in the potential for dialogue. There are opportunities for me to be more present. I, (as a proxy for the course) am only a small part of their experience and when that involves seeing me in a lecture once a week or sometimes less I may not seem very present to them. I have begun to use the online learning context to create a more regular presence, creating short daily activities that structure the week and that mean they are regularly working on our part of the course. I am also using the online environment to connect with them more, through announcements and using the discussion board.

Exploring new ways of fuelling a dialogue with students and being more present is really exciting. Perhaps though I also need to keep my expectations realistic – can changing the learning environment fundamentally alter students’ pre-conceived ideas in ways that on campus teaching could not? I’ll wait and see.

I would love to discuss experiences of online teaching of SBS in medicine with you. To kickstart that discussion I am going to do a ‘show and tell’ session to share what I have been doing and hopefully hear how you have tackled the challenges we are currently facing.

Moore, M. (2013). The theory of transactional distance. M.G. Moore (Ed.), Handbook of distance education (3rd ed.), Routledge, New York, pp. 66-85

Also check out the wonderful Manifesto for Teaching Online written by those involved in the University of Edinburgh Centre for Research in Digital Education

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An anthropology student-researcher’s changing perception of medical students and how they relate to the social sciences Tyler Harvey is currently reading Anthropology (BSc) at the University of Kent.


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