Distance Learning Essay #3
By Alex Sutton

Distance learning has been an interesting experience, but one which I will look back on for its novelty. It was an adventure for the first few classes, getting the technology to work, developing a protocol and learning how to communicate, and interacting on the news groups and Web. However, the class never developed the feeling or intimacy between the students and the professor I find in my other classes, and for this, the distance learning class was a disappointment.

I really missed not having the professor present in each class to lead the discussion and prod people face-to-face. In a way, I felt short-changed. Aside from this class where I chose to experience distance learning, being taught from afar is not what I came back to grad school for. I want the opportunity to develop a personal relationship, and I think that this level of personal interaction is very hard to develop via ISDN.

That Howard did go back and forth between Michigan and Berkeley, and that I knew him from the previous semester meant that I was able to develop rapport. However, I wonder what the experience was like for the students that had not taken a class with him before, and for students in the future who might never meet their teacher in person.

Distance learning and video conferencing do have very important roles to play. They enable classrooms to span the globe, bringing in guest speakers that the students could never meet with otherwise. Lecture-based classes would also work within the medium; what is important is seeing, in addition to hearing the professor. But distance learning is not conducive to seminars.

I did enjoy getting to work with students across the country. I do wish that we could have worked closer together and better gotten to know each other. While some of the blame is mine, it was hard enough scheduling group meetings for four and five just at Berkeley. A next challenge for this type of course is to explore Internet collaboration tools. Desktop videoconferencing will help, but I don't think we made as good use of news groups discussions as we could have. I suggest either reducing the number of newsgroups or using email instead, so that everyone is more likely to see the other students posts. It is harder to avoid reading email (though I sometimes do a pretty good job)

Fundamentally, the distance is a barrier which takes significant effort to overcome. When there is not a need for interaction, remote lectures can work. Where discussion in integral to the learning, students must be willing to make the commitment and technology needs to improve to make this easier and more productive.