Distance Learning Essay

By Dave Burkett

I'll start this paper on my personal reactions to the distance learning format, but I'll finish with my thoughts in response to a couple of often-cited criticisms with remote or electronic interaction.

First, I'm truly enjoying the class. The exploration of virtual communities in the context of a virtual classroom is a natural fit. I'm especially enjoying the diversity in backgrounds of my classmates, both at Berkeley and at Michigan. I feel fortunate at Berkeley to be a part of an incredibly diverse culture, something uncommon in many areas I've lived. My fellow Purdue alumnus on the Michigan side may agree that many who inhabit the cornfields of Indiana have never had the opportunity to meet and interact with individuals from different cultures or ideologies. I bring this up because it is this very technology that could one day help bridge this gap, even for "Hoosiers."

Two questions often come up when virtual or electronic interaction is discussed: is physical presence required for personal accountability, and does the presence of a camera change the experience?

On the topic of accountability, many in our class feel, that certain minimal requirements are necessary for establishing a credible conversation with another. The argument seems to be that in order for someone to be trusted, we must be in the same room, we must know their full name, and we must be sure that they are who they say they are.

It seems to me that this demands from our technology than we expect in our non-electronic lives. We often interact with individuals based solely on faith without confirming their identity, qualifications, or even seeing them face-to-face. For instance, how often have you called a business to order a product or reserve a ticket and given your credit card number, social security number or other personal information? Do you have any way of knowing if this individual actually works at the business or did they just happen to be in the office and pick up the phone while no-one was paying attention. Similarly, when you're in the hospital and a nurse drops by with medication, do you ask for a certified nursing diploma?

For that matter, in our own class, knowing the person's name on the other end of the line has been considered critical, but no one has asked for names on the same side of the connection. I spoke several times, yet have never met many of my Berkeley classmates. Is an unknown person in 3-D inherently more credible than a 2-D person on the other end of a well-defined video link?

The second topic is related. Many have noted that the presence of a camera is awkward or intimidating. However, consider a standard classroom; if a glass wall is placed down the middle such that everyone can hear and see everyone else, is the experience inherently different? Not really. Any individual still has the opportunity of either looking at the student who is talking, looking at the professor, or picking their nose for that matter. The nose-picker runs a similar risk of being seen as before. I argue that the camera is no different than this glass wall.

The question we should ask ourselves is "What aspects of virtual communities are fundamentally different and what are merely different 'packaging'?" I have argued that there are more aspects in common than there are differences. I'd welcome your comments, especially opposing arguments.