Views on Distance Learning 2nd edition

Shannon Cronin

skcronin@umich.edu, www.umich.edu/~skcronin/HomePage.html

After experiencing two distance learning classes, one in which Howard was in Berkeley and the other with him present here in A2, I think we all see different aspects of this class than we may have expected. There are several points that I would like to discuss.

First I hate to admit ignorance, or just plain lack of forethought, but I really didn't envision the technical problems that we would encounter with this class. I guess I assumed "..if they're offering the class, everything will all be set-up and run smoothly.." "WRONG!!" Go ahead, someone slap me. Now I realize how experimental this all is and how far some things need to progress before this becomes a common, viable option for 'every' class. The fact that we will be meeting in the ISR (Institute for Social Research-for B-Students who may not know our A2 acronyms) indefinately till the SILS system is running is dissapointing. I like our classroom in SILS, it has more 'flavor' although this would probably cause problems with the visual display for our Berkeley classmates. (The room has some brick walls and the spacing is different) Also, we probably wouldn't have the nasty glare off the monitors that we experience in the ISR room. Well, these are interesting points to consider when planning a room for this purpose, I guess. This is all a learning process after all.

I also didn't think about the expense that this incurs. Sitting here in the middle of academia, I sometimes forget about real-world costs and solutions for meeting these financial problems. For distance learning to be a common feature in school environments (all levels of education) the costs would have to decrease significantly. As it is now, many institutions couldn't afford the initial capital fees let alone the standard operating costs. Also there would have to be a staff of 'wizards' who could maintain the technology and troubleshoot any problems. (This is good for us....MILS students WILL have jobs--oh joy!)

Another point that I wished to discuss was the focus of the discussion. It seemed that wherever the lecturer was physically, then there was more broad discussion. When Howard was in Berkeley, a good percentage of the students responded while the M-class had fewer students responding. When Howard was in A2, many of us made comments and joined the discussion, but fewer of the Berkeley students participated. I'm not sure if this was in direct response to the professors presence that the students felt compelled to be more vocal or if it has to do with the camera angles. We only see 2/3 of the B-class at once and its hard to tell when someone wants to respond. Howard kept watching the screen to see when there were hands raised in B. The other problem that is involved is that the camera operators respond and focus in on someone that raises her/his hand. Then we can't see when someone else's hand is raised. More people probably want to respond but they feel that there isn't time or the camera is not focused on them so they won't bother. This is really a very large class for discussions although it seems smaller because we only sit among 1/2 of the group at a time. After last Friday's class I felt very frustrated because so many issues were raised and we really weren't able to discuss them to their fullest. For each topic we had maybe 4-5 responses including Howard's and then we had to move on. I know that many times there were students in A2 that had input but weren't able to respond, and I'm sure it was the same in Berkeley.

I like prefacing each of our comments with our names so that we will begin to match names and faces between the two groups. I now 'know' Cathy, Tim and Robert from the B-class and I'm starting to remember everyone in A2 also. I have to remember to look at the camera when I am talking though instead of looking at the screen (your faces in Berkeley). I find that I want to address faces instead of the camera lens because of the body language factor. I want responses to my comments and I can't get those from the lens. I wish that there could be multiple cameras set up so that I could view all the students in B and A2 at the same time, but then I'd be watching the screens again when making responses. Alas, what is the answer to this problem?

Well, I think that we're going to keep learning about this system and about ourselves and the dynamics of the classroom interaction. This class is proving to be more interesting than I ever imagined.