Distance Learning Impressions 1

Normally when I sit down in a classroom I choose wherever I want. Sometimes the professor has ideas about filling up the front row or everyone being in a large circle. Whatever. If I want to sit with my friends, I can. If I'm feeling anti-social, I can move away. I have a lot of flexibility. Not so with distance learning. First off, I had to get rid of my flannel shirt to avoid overloading the link. Second, I was segregated to a row by how loud I felt I could comfortably speak. Third, I was squashed in with others so that the camera would have no difficulty getting us all in one shot.

That's physically. It has its cultural/emotional side too - like determining what my personal space requirements are. However, the social implications really got interesting when the class actually started.

I didn't know where to look. If a Ann Arbor classmate was speaking, I had a choice of looking right at them, or at a monitor. If a Berkeley classmate was speaking I had a choice of two monitors, one of them behind me. The back of the room monitor only got confusing when the guest lecturer used it to watch Berkeley students. That felt weird.

Most difficult was trying to figure out where to look when I was speaking. Should I look around at my Ann Arbor classmates, stare vaguely at the wall, address the camera (like on TV), watch myself on the monitor, or look at the Berkeley students on the other monitor? I don't see any easy way around this. With more cameras, spotters to designate who gets to speak next and better microphones this problem might be alleviated, at least technically. The personal side would likely deteriorate as participants become more and more mechanized in their participation. Even at the current level of technology used the free flow of communication is somewhat stilted and mechanical.

I think the point was well taken that the experiment also suffers from the lack of accountability between Ann Arbor and Berkeley students. If a distant classmate proposes something I disagree with and I want to discuss it, I can not catch up with him or her after class. I am not likely to meet them in the halls. Even e-mail is only possible if I know their name. Same goes for CU-CME. So I would feel compelled to argue during class time. This could get very disruptive

Ultimately it looks like we'll have to adopt some practices that are not familiar to us. Hopefully these will not sacrifice too much. In the first class we spent the majority of the time discussing the link rather than the articles assigned for reading or asking questions about the impact of technologies in general. I predict that a lot of the real learning is going to go on outside of the classroom, and I don't mean reading books. I think that students will be forced to use the alternate meeting arrangements: e-mail, group meetings, phones etc. to pursue their interests.