Impressions of Distance Learning: 3

In the end, I'd have to say that this has been a valuable experience, although a much different one than I had expected. I had thought that the two groups would be able to interact better than they did (which is not to deny that we had very interesting input from both sides.) I did learn that it is much more difficult to interact electronically than in person.

I enjoyed "meeting" the students from Berkeley. They contributed some fine ideas, were frequently entertaining, and shared this confrontation with technology with our side. I would have enjoyed meeting the people here also.

We were forced to cope with the media as well as the content. Quite possibly the media became the content. You had to strategically plan where to sit. Will you be on camera frequently? Do you choose to sit on the side away from the major focus? Are you going to be sitting in front of someone who speaks frequently ensuring that your head will appear continuously at the bottom of the screen? Do you want to be where the teacher can spot you easily to make comments?

The technology magnifies our strengths and weaknesses. Some people look good on camera, some worse. (Movie producers have always been aware of this. The camera flatters some, dislikes others.) I see people looking self conscious and those who should be more self-conscious; those who stiffen up and drop their eyes, and those who obliviously chew gum and look bored.

The main point was that the technology drew us away from interacting with the people sitting around us. Our attention was drawn to the screen at all times. The media became an important actor, perhaps THE important actor. Interaction was very different when we did not have the screen. We turned to face each other, looked each other in the eye, read each other's cues. We were not stilted by having to interact with the technology. It was no longer a factor. When the technology was down, we interacted more freely with each other, our conversations were more detailed and intricate, our comments more spontaneous, less superficial.

The camera cut down on the complexity of interaction. Comments had to be sized for the camera, formed in succinct units, sound bites if you will. We were limited in the amount of follow up we could give to our comments. It was almost a one-shot deal. You raise your hand, wait for the camera and the teacher to focus on YOU, make your 30 second speech, then be left behind. The media, as we should all know by now, lends itself short, pithy statements. It's the nature of the beast. It doesn't favor long, reasoned discourses.

I have read about the schools who have thought about using this method to teach courses to people located in varying localities. We had problems enough dealing with just two locations. How could a teacher/moderator deal with several? How could each contribute and interact? How many screens would have to be set up?

It seems that the media would be good for bringing speakers in from a distance. But hasnšt it already been used in this manner? In this way it essentially becomes a TV or a Larry King call-in with two-way video. It possibly could be useful if there were joint teaching with people with two separate expertises, one located in each locality.

We've largely escaped the limiting factor of cost. We could have met and interacted with each other more fully on a cruise for about the same amount of money. What of added value would justify this kind of money in the real world? Or are we assuming that the cost of the technology will greatly drop in the future?

What is the cost/benefit ratio in an unsubsidized setting? What is the value added? When would this be an enhancement? What if the professor spent all his time in one place and the other class never met him face to face? Would we still have the same value as the side that had the teacher in person? Would the professor get to know us as well if he never met us in person?

The technical problems with the technology didn't surprise me that much. Haven't we seen technology fail enough to expect it by now? Maybe that's just part of modern life, coping with the technology, coping with the problems as well as the benefits. It reminds me of what rural people lost trading interaction at communal work areas for labor-saving devices in their homes. We gain/we lose. We have to weigh the benefits against the losses. We move on.

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