Most of first essay was spent discussing my preoccupation with the interface vice the actual learning content of the class. Six weeks later I find myself hardly noticing it at all. Just as the GUI interface on my Mac is all but transparent, the "distance learning" aspect of the class has faded into the background. In class I find myself focusing on what is being said rather than the medium over which it is being brought to me. The distance learning environment has become much more like a normal classroom learning experience than I imagined possible.
As my comfort level has increased so has my class participation. Early on the "tv" aspect of the class intimidated me. I think I felt that because my comments were being transported over an expensive video link and projected onto a (gasp) television monitor, that they should be more polished, more well developed than something I might say in a "normal" classroom. That feeling diminished as my comfort level increased.
I also find myself being more critical of what is delivered to me over the video link. As the distance learning interface faded into the background and I became less conscious of the fact that someone people's comments were coming out of the monitor, I began to assess what they were saying much more critically. I began to react more as I would if they were sitting in a room with me. I think this is party due to the fact that it took a much longer time to develop a high enough comfort level with the Michigan people-- to feel like I knew them well enough-- to disagree with them or a challenge them.
As the interface became less and less of an obstacle to learning, aspects of the multi-media nature of the class which actually enhanced the learning experience became more apparent to me. The use of the world wide web to present news stories stands out as an example. Without the net, such an exercise would not be possible (even if the class were in one location). It would simply be impractical to get a timely collection of stories to everyone in the class to read in advance (in my case often just before the class meets!). The ability to easily manipulate and display the material during class is an additional advantage (although not without significant monetary costs to the learning institution as well as the students). In a distance learning environment the advantages of using digital media to deliver material are multiplied. It is difficult to imagine how such a class could be conducted without them.
That said, shortcomings in these technologies have surfaced as well. The shortage of available dial-in lines has prevented me from visiting the class site as often as I would like. The concept of using newsgroups to conduct a dialog is great but on several occasions, having allocated some time to read the groups and do some posting, I was not able to log on. The problem has prevented me from visiting the class home page as frequently as I would like, to check assignments, read other student's essays, and check out the newspaper stories. Although distribution and collection of class materials and assignments on the web is theoretically more convenient for all, access problems mean it's not there yet.
A final issue which I want to comment on is etiquette. Just as the Internet developed its own rules of etiquette to deal with the technical and cultural peculiarities of newsgroups, e-mail, and IRCs, distance learning needs etiquette rules as well. I expect they will evolve naturally over time out of necessity, perhaps with prodding from professors who are perhaps less tolerant of distraction than the one we have now. The problem is the classic classroom dilemma-- resisting the desire to whisper a witty comment to your neighbor instead of paying attention. I can remember being chastised by teachers for this type of behavior every since I started school (kindergarten, not university). Nevertheless, when the teacher is at the other end of a video link I sometimes find the temptation too strong to resist, despite years of reminders about how rude and disruptive this can be. I have noticed that others also seem unable to control the primal urge to chat. Unfortunately this can be extremely annoying. I can think specifically of a case where we had a guest speaker and some student on the "remote" end of the link chatted, whispered, and giggled through the entire presentation. I don't think they would have done this had the speaker been physically present. Perhaps it's a couch potato phenomenon-- because the speaker is on a monitor we feel free to do whatever it is we do when we watch TV, disregarding the courtesy of "paying attention" we would automatically extend to someone who was physically present.
Defining what is appropriate behavior for remote video links is harder than identifying what clearly is not. For instance, I can remember being taught that it is polite to maintain eye contact with a speaker, to at least give them the impression that you are paying attention. Distance learning changes this a bit. What constitutes "eye contact" over a video link? Should we feel obligated to stare at a video camera or a projected image of the speaker? If the mikes are off is it still rude to make a relevant comment to a classmate? What is the appropriate way to get the speaker's attention if you want to raise a question and the camera isn't pointed in your direction? All of these issues will probably be resolved in time and will become as natural to us as any other social skill. Until they are, however, it may be useful to clearly establish the ground rules in distance learning environments.
In summary, I consider distance learning using current technology to be a feasible, if less than optimal solution. Distance learning has obviously progressed a long way from the days of watching a community college professor deliver a lecture over a one way cable TV link or, far that matter, from the days of correspondence courses taught using good old U.S. mail. Not yet a mature technology, distance learning has emerged a gangly adolescent, full of promise but still rough around the edges. Based on my introduction, however, I am optimistic that it offers a useful tool for the future. The interface will evolve and recede even further into the background, technical issues regarding consistent access to online materials will be resolved, and helpful rules of etiquette will be formed. Once this evolution has occurred, distance learning may come very close to the "real thing" in terms of learning effectiveness.