Distance Learning Impressions 1

John Powell

School of Information and Library Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48109


The purpose of this "page" is to discuss my impressions of Howard Besser's Distance Learning Class held on Fridays from 1 - 4 pm EST in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Berkeley, California.

I would like to begin with a few preconceived notions I had about this class. I was very excited to take this class. This was the first class, I felt, that really explored the impact of technology and how it is changing our lives. Not only does this class look at technological issues but it allows students to critically dismantle popular and current "views" to unearth the real issues of how technological gains change the way we do things. This, in itself, is the core of the class. However, while exploring the issues of technology, this class will itself be in the middle of the technological revolution. This class is being taught on two campuses, simultaneously and 2000 miles apart. What follows are my impressions of the distance learning aspect of the class.


At the start of Friday, January 20th's class, I was amazed and impressed with the technology that linked the two classrooms together. At first it seemed as if it were something from the future. However, that thought quickly subsided as it seemed we were just watching television. As the Ann Arbor class came "online" with Berkeley, we quickly realized the dull, fuzziness to the picture. It was clear that this wasn't the same quality television we receive in our homes. Our picture was distorted by excess movement, patterned clothing, and lack of contrast between colors. The quality of the picture reminded me of a QuickTime movie on a computer -- one that is often disjunct and lacks the standards we deem appropriate for television. The sound quality, however, seemed to be good even though it was delayed. I could clearly hear the Berkeley students. The way I understand their set up, the microphones are placed on the desks and three microphones can be active at one time. I found that the sound made me feel as if I were among the Berkeley students. Hearing glimpses of background conversations, pencils fall, and students moving in their seats actually made me feel as if I were sitting among the Berkeley students.

I know the students in Ann Arbor found it difficult to imagine that the ISR building lacks Internet connectivity. I feel we were at a disadvantage not being able to see what was being presented at Berkeley.

There are two other issues regarding technology I would like to comment upon. One, it would be nice if we could do something about the glare on the television screens. It made looking at the television difficult and tedious at times. The other issue is the screen seemed too small. A larger television would have been nice. In thinking about these two issues for the future, I kept finding myself thinking that it would be nice to have a large screen television with a split screen showing different camera angles of the class. Even more idealistic would be individual monitors for each student allowing him or her to choose which camera angle they wish to view. Thus enabling each student to be his or her own "producer".

The Physical Classroom

The physical classroom was different and something seemed to be missing. It obviously was the lack of physical and social contact with the class on the "other" side. While neither side knew each other, it was difficult and awkward to meet the other class. Why? While introducing ourselves, in a "traditional" classroom, you can look around, see who's paying attention and interested in what you're saying. In this new environment, all you could do is just look deep into the camera and smile. There was a lack of social interaction. I am very much interested in this aspect of technology. In particular, virtual communities and in this class, how each of us participates. Some of us will feel extremely comfortable in joining in classroom discussion. I personally, feel more comfortable discussing issues with people online, either in real time or over time. I feel that I can express my opinions clearly without having the other person reach some kind of preconceived notions about me because of the way I look, dress, act, or whatever. I see that this same issue might be in this class as well.

As someone in the Berkeley class pointed out, it is difficult to feel among your classmates when you are looking at them, rather than being among them. I suppose for the first few weeks this will be awkward, but we will get use to it. The camera view, as I raised in the previous section, seemed to be focused on Howard most of the time. When this was the case, it didn't even seem like there was another class present. I think we lose something when we can't see who is among us.

Participating in Class

Our first class was interesting in that we spent the first hour with Howard in Berkeley and Michael Joyce in Ann Arbor the second hour. In so doing, I noticed a difference in the two classrooms. It was very difficult for students at the listening/watchin classroom jump into the conversation and participate in class. It seemed as if the class with the speaker was "alive" with questions and participation. I think there are several issues that are at the root of this. I think the main issue is eye contact. In a classroom where participation is important, the instructor can look around the room and see in the eyes of the students who has questions or wanting to say something in response to them. With the instructor in one classroom, the other class is at a disadvantage with the lack of eye contact. It was obvious between the two hours that the placement of the speaker had something to do with the participation in the classroom. Second, both classrooms are at the mercy of the camera. Persons sitting in the middle of the classroom were more likely to be involved in discussion first because they were in direct view of the camera. Person sitting on the perimeters of the class received less "air time" then those in the middle. At one point, a student asked, "Who speaks first? How do we know when to speak? Who ever has the camera focused on them has the floor?

The T.V. Generation

Picking up on an issue I raised in the last paragraph -- the classroom that was "alive" had the speaking. I think this can be related to the "television generation". We are part of the television generation. The way we look and use television is to easy. We sit down, turn it on, and watch. We don't stop the speaker of the newscast and ask her/him questions. It just doesn't happen. Since we are not use to talking back to television, it's easy to believe everything that is told. I think we can see that in our current events and political leaders. Television doesn't allow people to think. We simply take what we get from t.v. and believe. Now, I'm not saying I do that, but it is easy to do and many people do that. Simply listen to any radio talk show and listen to what people are saying. Whether we like it or not, television and radio are major influences in our lives and what people think and believe. (I could go off on a tangent, but won't. However, this is another issue I would like to explore.) This does lead to another issue. In class, we only get one angle of the class at a time. This is because only one camera is on at a time and only two cameras are in each class. No matter what camera is on, we are generally looking at a speaker. We are being presented with one view point. We are missing other angles of the class. We are at the mercy of person directing the cameras. There are many other issues and views in each class which we missed. It will be interesting as this class progress to see how this issue is dealt with.

Other Observations

I must say, I really enjoyed listening to the Berkeley class. This class brings together two different groups of people with different experiences and backgrounds. I really like this. It adds new angles and broadens the scope of learning which I have never received before. Each week I look forward to this class. It's like no other class I've ever had.

Having stated these observations, I must say I am very interested in the distance learning concept and how it can be improved and taken advantage of in the future. I feel privileged to be part of this opportunity to test the concepts of distance learning.

Written January 22, 1995