Effectiveness of Distance Learning Technologies

I know that you have all had the feeling, sitting in a class about the impact of new information technologies, and listening to your professor try and lead discussion through the muffled vocalization of a speakerphone. The irony hits you like a brick. And I suppose, to a certain extent, this is life on the edge of technology; In consumer applications of technology, there has to be a certain level of consistency. A device must perform as it is intended to, and if it doesn't, the consumer is not sated with attempts to explain the complexity of the systems involved. The technology either works, or it doesn't.

Not so in class, however. Sometimes the technology works, and sometimes the T.A. does. So when I examine the technologies utilized in this course, I do so not only as a student of them, but also as a consumer. We all need to look at them this way, because we are paying exorbitant amounts of money to have access to these technologies. Has the distance learning aspect of this course really been worth the time, effort, end money that was used to set it up? And who is benefiting the most from technologies used in this class?

It seems that the purpose of the inclusion of distance learning systems in this class is twofold: one is for our own benefit as students, so that we may interact with other people with similar interests, where physical limitations would otherwise keep us from doing this directly; the other is as an ad-hoc experiment in distance learning. The equipment used in class is very expensive, and obviously would not be provided for the uses of a single class. This class is an experiment. It is an incubator, putting these technologies to the test of viability and practicality on a small scale, in the hopes of assessing future pragmatic potential.

When you look at the public claims of some educators, you can begin to understand why. Here at Michigan, the administration has planned to radically expand off campus remote student enrollment. This means that the primary methods of instruction would be made through the implementation of various distance instruction devices. This is an intriguing move to get around the physical limitations of a university. Class-size is limited by a room's ability to hold bodies. A University campus can only hold and effectively educate a finite number of people, due to the limitations of space. So if you want to increase enrollment, thereby increasing both influence of the University in the outside world, through increased number of alumni, and also increasing moneys brought into the University in the form of tuition form many more students, this appears to be a novel solution to a difficult problem. But let's not forget that the University's main goal should be to provide a superior education. (This paper demands a certain amount of naive altruism on the part of the reader) Looking back on this semester, how did these technologies influence our class?

Loss of Time

We lost a lot of class time to the set-u and maintenance of the distance learning devices. Low bandwidth, (or no bandwidth) problems were constant. The initial link-up usually took the first 20 minutes of class. Time was lost through people talking over one another on slower connections. The inclusion of two classes at remote sites did widen the experiential pool of the students, but it also meant less time to interact in class, because there are so many more people.

Loss of Content

Prevalent in many of the early distance learning papers was the question of content. Discussion seemed to vacillate wildly, staggering off on questionable tangents. True open discourse seemed to be hard to achieve. it was more a question, answer and comment forum. The dynamics of a small group discussion were decidedly lacking. Either the instructor would keep a tight rein on focus of discussion, or relevant issues would start to ooze out of focus.

Many of the aspects of the web-site were also muddled. The archival aspect of the class homepage is a nice idea, but I personally never felt very at home there. For some reason the pieces were all there: the personal homepages, the essays, the discussion groups; but it all never came together as a place that personified the class and the people in it for me. I would have really like doing more things online. There was some good discussion that went on in the individual groups, but it seems to stay there, as opposed to being published on the web.

having said all that, I think that the ability to interact and learn from the Berkeley students was a welcome one. Part of the magic of the processes we have encountered this semester seems to be that oft-touted ability of new information technologies to bridge the gap between peoples created by distance. There is a large pool of interesting and experienced people to talk to right here in Michigan, but there is something about the concrete presentation of people so similar in many ways to yourself, and yet so far away geographically, coupled with the ability to interact with them in real-time discussion that is a very powerful experience.

There are positive aspects to many other facets of this course as well. I think that in the near future we will see an explosion of courses utilizing electronic publishing both on and off the web to keep records of what the students have done, ,create resources for them to use in class, and basically provide a personality to individual courses. I think it may be some time, however, before distance education become a truly effective and viable means of instruction