Distance Learning Essay 3

by Brent Hall


As I look at my experience with distance learning now compared to in the past, many things have changed. In my last essay, I remarked on how I was growing more comfortable with video conferencing as a medium for distance learning. Now, my viewpoint has changed.

Now the novelty has worn off, and it has become very difficult to participate actively. Because of the unique structure of participation where people must wait patiently until called upon, those who do particpate must truly desire to. This eliminates spontaneous comments that one grows used to in a university setting. Often when I did have comments, by the time everyone in Michigan was done speaking, and focus turned to Berkeley's comments, my ideas were no longer relevent to the subject. Many times my ideas ended up outdated, having been brought up on the other side before focus turned to Berkeley. Perhaps an alternating of comments should be adapted.

Due to the unique structure of discussion, many problems arose. I did notice that when the professor was not on our side, participation on our side dropped off immensely. No longer did students have to pay attention because they weren't under the watchful eye of authority. It was these days when everyone would have their outside reading materials open and present. It seemed that there was little need to maintain an active role in the class because it was too easy not to. After a time, it seemed like class discussion revolved around a few individuals persistent enough to contribute. The remainder of the class would occassionally comment, but for the most part this was rare.

The technology remained about the same. However, it seemed that there were more technological difficulties later in the semester. This was disruptive; however by this time I was accustomed to it and it had little effect. One class there was no video, only audio. This was very interesting. During this class session, the professor was in Michigan. On the Berkeley side, the atmosphere was quite different than if there was video. As I mentioned before, without the professor there people tended to lose focus. The video just could not supplant an authority figure being in the room. With only sound and no video, it was very hard to concentrate on the class. It seems that audio alone is not a very good medium for distance learning. People in the Berkeley classroom were not attentive to the subjects being discussed at all. There was no way of knowing who was speaking and if anyone from our side wanted to speak. Initially it seems that students tried to remain active, but quickly realized the difficulty was too great. Many students left early or did not pay attention because it was just too unstructured and difficult. Through this "experiment," it appears that the minimum requirement for any type of distance learning is audio and video. Anything less than this is ineffectual.

Overall I think that the distance learning "experiment" was interesting. Understandably it is in its early stages and this was one of the first attempts at it. In this context, the class went pretty well. It was interesting to be taught using this method and to be exposed to distance learning. The class still functioned like a normal one despite some characteristics unique to video conferencing. However, I find it difficult to believe that this will replace more traditional learning formats. If distance learning is the only option, then this technology is passable. For this class, distance learning was not a necessity. It would have been much easier and effective to treat it as one would a traditional course. However, the fact that we were experimenting with different ways of learning is a great accomplishment. The future has to start somewhere. It would be simple for everyone to be content with the old ways. It is much harder to jump into the future and try new ways. Through this class I feel that in someway we have accomplished this integral first step.

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