Distance Learning: First Impressions
Tom Turner

These comments are certainly first impressions having experienced teleconferencing only once. I was struck by a few things as I sat in class last Friday: the implications of becoming a spectacle, spatial orientation in a classroom, and group interaction with a moderator.

The most difficult thing for me to adjust to was the role of the video monitors in the room. Having two monitors was very disorienting. One remained focused on the Ann Arbor room while the other focused either on Howard or the Berkeley students. I had been prepared to lose privacy and to be shown via the network. However, what I did not expect was the degree of self-consciousness that the monitor brought with it. It was as if I had been walking through a house and suddenly came upon my reflection in a mirror in a place where I had not expected it to be. I felt like I had no options except to look at myself in this electronic mirror. The camera focuses on you but, more startling, you appear to yourself. I was also surprised by my tendency to watch Michael Joyce on the monitor even though he was standing six feet in front of me.

Another issue that became clearer to me as I sat in class listening to the discussion involved the importance of physical space and spatial orientation to the classroom dynamic. It occurred to me that in other classes I decide about whether or not to speak based partly on the body language of the people around me. If I sense that many people are wanting to speak I know to be brief or to keep silent. In this case, half of the class was not in the same room. I had no sense of who there was comfortable or uncomfortable with the what was being said or how many people were waiting and wanting to speak. My sense of how to interact was disoriented by this loss of common place. It made clearer to me how much my sensations impact how I experience what happens in my classes.

Watching the interactions between what were in effect two groups in two places drew attention to the ways in which students interact with moderators. In the early part of the session, when Howard was directing the discussion, it seemed that the Berkeley students dominated the interaction. Later, when Michael Joyce spoke, the Ann Arbor students seemed to speak for longer periods and more often. The eye of the camera is, apparently, not as important as the eye of the instructor. It reinforced for me the fact that simply giving people access to communication technology does not empower them to speak. Power dynamics remain in place.