Distance Learning Essay

The Next Frontier

Thoughts on Distance Learning 2/3/95


The room, the lights, the camera, the huge screens. When I first entered the wired classroom in Dwinelle, I thought I had been transported somewhere more along the likes of science fiction, a real "Twilight Zone". It felt like an exciting venture into what may define how classes are taught in the future.

I have been keeping observational notes each class meeting to see if there would be any growth or sense of "virtual community" between both Michigan and Berkeley students. It is interesting to note how the Michigan students initially would repeat how detached from us they felt. We just didn't seem real to them. Similarly, our impressions of them were limited to our knowledge of Michigan. All I really know of Michigan is that it's really cold over there right now. I had heard Sara Ryan of Michigan talk a few times in class, but she didn't seem "real" to me until I talked to her over the phone and via CU-See Me. Maybe it was the fact that it was just the two of us conversing without all the hoopla of the cameras and lights. In contrast, I think most of us in class think through what we are going to say. There becomes less spontaneous banter. It becomes quite intimidating to conceptualize that your voice and image are traveling to another place.

The two large video screens in the middle of the class seem to have the students mesmerized. I find myself just as guilty, looking at the screen even when the person talking is sitting right next to me. It is interesting to note how everyone has adapted their personality to fit the production of the class. Everyone pauses before they speak until the camera "cues" them to. We have all taken upon the role as performer, knowing what to wear, how and when to speak, and transfixed upon our images. Maybe we could all get costumes and try to sell the show to NBC? All kidding aside, I think the very power of the video screens has made us more aware of ourselves and what we say.

When Howard is away and I am performing my RA duties such as running the articles in Netscape, I get a better view of how the class is transfixed upon the screen. Usually in past classes, Howard would run the newspaper articles from the overhead projector. Students would get a sense of the article from the headline and the lead paragraph, but rarely did they ever read the whole article. Now that the articles are in Netscape and up on the second video screen, students read a screen full, then continuously ask me to keep scrolling up the article. Of course it is no inconvience to me, but it is rather interesting to note that because of the fact that it is up on the screen, there is a compelling need to digest it.

I think that the benefits of the course lie not only in the course material and subject but also the shared experience of two distant places where for one morning/afternoon, students find themselves entering the next frontier.


Natalie Zee
nzee@uclink2.berkeley.edu
ide regular college or adult education classes. As states cut back funding to public universities, this technology will provide a means of sharing resources. In areas where faculty are cut, distance learning will allow students to take courses with faculty at another campus. Unfortunately, this may lead to an abuse of the technology as funds are cut in the belief that distance learning will take up the slack.

One final point. Distance learning appears to be an extension of the pervasiveness of television in the lives of the American public. Many of us have already participated at a small scale in distance learning (a less technical and less interactive version). As children we watched and learned from Sesame Street. Kermit, Grover, Oscar, and all the other Muppet and human actors helped teach us how to count and read. In a sense, we have been prepared since childhood for distance learning. The crucial difference is that the technology now allows us to give immediate feedback to the teachers and other participants. But essentially, it is the Sesame Street model as we sit in front of a television and listen (and participate as many of us did as children). Additionally, VCRs and camcorders have made some of us more accustomed to seeing ourselves on television. As members of the TV Generation, distance learning is a logical continuation of our relationship to the television. (You know, Howard does look a bit like Jim Henson.)

Wendell Thomas