Distance Learning Essay #2

Cathy Gellis 4/22/95 (Conceived much earlier)

There has to be some reason that distance learning is considered good. I guess it has something to so with the fact that the technology is able to bridge the geographical distance gap between the teacher and the student. In other words, distance learnin g must be good for education because it permits educational opportunities that might have been impossible without the extra technology.

But it's not all that it's cracked up to be. To simply throw technology at an education does not automatically ensure it will be beneficial. Recent history in this course has demonstrated one of the problems with that assumption.

It took awhile, but eventually everybody in the class, on both the Berkeley and Michigan sides, became accustomed enough to the technology to develop conventions that would let us function efficiently despite it. It is a burden to not be able to speak more freely, to have to compete for attention and to have to wait so long to have the instructor's acknowledgment. But eventually we adjusted to the fact that we could not speak out of turn, and that the trick was to get the camera operator's attention if one wanted to be called on. And so we proceeded on with our education without necessarily being aware of the confines being placed on it.

Until the day the technology failed. There was no picture. Our window to the other side was closed. Instead we had to rely on only audio, but it wasn't the usual audio that we had become used to; this audio was considerably more sensitive and idiosy ncratic.

These technological changes affected our behavior in many ways. Not being able to see the other side, and the instructor, our ability to believe in what was occurring on the other side was becoming strained. In order to follow the discussions, typica lly, because of lagtime, it was necessary to use all our senses to fill in the gaps. The pictures we saw validated what we were hearing, and vice versa. Now we were left with more gaps, and no other input with which to fill them. It became extremely te dious to have to imagine enough to fill them in. All this effort was therefore taking away from the ability to pay attention and absorb the educational content of what was occurring.

The super-sensitive audio was crippling. We could hardly breathe without it interfering with the person who was talking. This is a burden not at all conducive towards education. So we tried to cover up the microphones in order to be able to allow ou r metabolisms operate without interference. We could do this because without the picture, there was less accountability. No one knew who was there or what we were doing. So I contemplated leaving. Sure, cutting classes shortchanges my own education. But on the other hand, under those circumstances, what was I learning? I felt stifled, both physically and intellectually. I could hardly concentrate. The discussion mostly stayed on the Michigan side because there was no way to know if anyone on the B erkeley side had a comment, and in general it was difficult to focus on what we were hearing. The fidelity left something to be desired, and every time anyone moved it cut out the signal. I tried and tried, but I couldn't focus, my mind was wandering, a nd I generally was not being at all productive with my time. Merely sitting in a classroom does not an education make.

Of course, just as I was about to get up to leave, the video came back.

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c. 1995 Cathy Gellis