Martha Pinto
ILS 609
Winter '95
Distance Learning Essay #3

Impressions of ILS 609 and Distance Learning

This essay is written as we are nearing the end of the Winter term in Ann Arbor. Entering the term, we were warned that this course would make extensive use of technology and that the combination of multiple technologies would in all likelihood present problems during the course of the semester. At this point in time, I guess my overriding impression of the technologies used, is that they were far more reliable and effective than I had imagined they would be going into the course. That's not to say they were perfect, but at this point, I don't feel they have created a negative experience.

Up front, let me say that I can appreciate the additional demand in terms of preparation, that the delivery of this type of course must place on the instructor and support staff. In such a position, the pressure to keep the technology functioning would quickly become my top priority. With that said, however, since my assignment here is to relate my impressions of the class from the student viewpoint, I feel more attention could have been paid to the human aspects of the course. Only now, near the end of the term, am I beginning to become involved in working with a group of Berkeley students. I personally feel that I am at a stage of communication that I should have been at two months ago. This, is due only in small part to technical problems such as a delay in setting up newsgroups and access to each others homepages. It is due more to the typical inertia on the part of students (I willingly confess my guilt here!) and the basic structure of the assignments. We needed to be "forced" into a higher level of interaction and "forced" into it early in the term. Quite frankly, this is true whether students sit two rows in front of you or two thousand miles away. However, in a distance delivery course such as this, more attention and advance planning must be applied to creating the environment for interaction. For example, ILS 609 meets for three hours each week. In much shorter classes, in-class time is typically allocated to get group interaction started. I think scheduling 15-20 time slots for each focus group to use the videoconferencing connection during the last hour of class time would have been a tremendous way to get us started early on.

In terms of the structure of assignments, if they had required interaction early in the term, I for one, would have been much more proactive. My schedule is so out of control, that if something doesn't have to be presented or turned in, it just falls to the bottom of the priority pile. Scheduling and interacting with students at another school, because I should and because its neat, has just been falling down my list of priorities. This is something I regret, but it is not likely to change until someone invents a 32 hour day. Perhaps in future classes you might sort the readings by interest group category and have members of those groups lead the discussions. Or, each week have one group select a set of readings and lead the discussion. In addition to facilitating interaction, it would also provide students with more opportunity to gain presentation experience using the videoconference medium. This is an increasingly important skill and practice opportunities are still rare.

Overall, my impressions of this class, like any class I take, are clouded by expectations upon entering it. Upon entering the class, I thought the course was going to structured to take maximum advantage of the strengths and experiences the technology could offer. By that I mean I thought the technology would be used in such a way as to provide a superior experience to one I could otherwise have in my geography and environment. Within that context, my overriding impression is one of opportunity lost. I believe we demonstrated that a class can be successfully taught at a distance using this technology. I also believe the technology was appropriate for the delivery of such a course. I am left feeling disappointed, however, because I don't feel we took enough advantage of the strengths of the technology.

I am not convinced the inclusion of discussion and opinions alone of students in Ann Arbor adds enough significant value to the course experience of Berkeley students, and vice versa, to warrant the effort and expense of delivering it. The weeks in which we had outside speakers, however, did demonstrate the value added dimension this technology can offer. I also feel the inclusion of the distance element into the use of collaborative tools for groupwork adds significant value to the course. As I described above, it is unfortunate that both the students and the assignments did not take better advantage of this opportunity. Although I am left feeling disappointed with this ILS 609 experience, I am also left feeling optimistic about the application of this type of technology in the future.


mjpinto@sils.umich.edu