February 3, 1995

John Hanke

SID 12634965


Essay on Distance Learning

Essay on Distance Learning

The first few distance learning classes remind me of the first time a used a Macintosh (way back in 1984!). Accustomed to crude command line operating systems of the Apple II/Atari/TRS-80 variety, text based displays, and unintegrated applications, I was blown away by the rich, GUI, goodness of the Mac OS. I was transfixed by the onscreen mouse pointer which seemed to hover magically above the virtual desktop and gave me the incredible ability to move files around at will, highlight paragraphs of text, and pull down those wonderful menus of commands. Like the Mac OS, distance learning seems to me a new interface-- dazzling, transfixing, and full of awesome potential. Yet it is potential so far untapped.

Like the first Mac, distance learning hardware is just barely capable of supporting this powerful new interface. The crude pixilated video, molasses slow camera pans, and not infrequent media miscues remind me of that poor little Mac trying to work its magic with only 128K of RAM and a tiny 400K floppy drive for storage. The beauty and power of the Mac OS were not fully realized until the hardware caught up with the revolutionary advance in software. Likewise, the real power of distant learning remains hidden behind a veil of small but cumulatively significant technical weak spots.

Also like the early days of the Mac, I am far too busy being awed by the revolutionary nature of the interface to focus on actually getting anything done. I sometimes feel like we are doing the equivalent of using the spray can tool in MacPaint to make really bad bitmapped drawings or using MacWrite to make hideous letters using about 15 different fonts and styles. Sure it's fun to play with this stuff, but what can we really do with it? Where will we find the revolution that the Mac eventually spawned in desktop publishing and graphic art?

Sadly, I do not know precisely where this new "learning interface" will lead us. I say "sadly" because, as an MBA, I would love to know precisely which stocks to buy so that I might build my dream house on a cliff above the Pacific and spend the rest of my days playing with the wonderful new toys that technology has brought us. Does that mean I am skeptic of the value of our crude, early effort at putting distance learning to work? Absolutely not. I am glad to be a part of pioneering this new technology.

Distance learning has a personal significance to me. As someone who grew up in a tiny rural community,involuntarily isolated from the rich world of ideas and discourse that I have since discovered, distance learning carries special appeal. People on East and West coasts often deride the imagined intellectual void in between. While it is true that much of middle America and the south are bland and in many ways uninteresting places in terms of ideas and art, it not due to lack of intellect or ability. Rather it is because intellectual "economies of scale" do not exist to form the critical mass of ideas and debate found in traditional cultural centers such as New York and San Francisco. Distance learning and, in a broader context, the many to many communication enabled by the net are bringing that critical mass to all of America who want to seek it out. In doing so they are creating a far richer and more diverse cultural and intellectual milieu for all of us. Is this a hopelessly utopian perspective? Did the "computer for the rest of us" revolutionize the world in they way that its inventors imagined that it would? Maybe I got temporarily carried away, but at the very least we get to watch some interesting people from Michigan talk on grainy video monitors, and the Mac did give us SimCity, aren't those worth something?