Distance Learning: Second Impressions
Tom Turner
1/27/95


My first impressions still hold about distance learning although some other issues also occurred to me in class last week. I thought more about the interaction that takes place and the shape of the discussion. This also lead me to think about the naturalization of technology, which was something of an issue in the content of our discussion as well as in its form.

Interaction via video link alters the rhythm of discussion in the classroom. Rather than a constant back and forth between students or between students and instructors, self-consciousness alters the flow. Television conventions of sound bites and laugh tracks lurk in the background of televised classroom comments. Whispers in the back of the classroom can become spectacles. There seems always to be an awareness that you are on camera and need to be clever. I feel the pressure to make a point well and quickly rather than to make an argument. Sound bites are a structure that constrains discourse on television and can control classroom discussions as well.

Related to this issue is the naturalization of technology. Writing, pedagogy, and the newspaper are all technologies that we have lost sense of as technology. Technology, in a broad sense, is that which enables us to use it to produce meanings and accomplish tasks. Technology is more than networks and Pentium processors. It is the apparatus of discourse. We tend no longer to think about the materiality of writing and the way it, as a social development and technological accomplishment, shapes knowledge and understanding. Similarly, we forget that pedagogical methods are technologies of meaning as well. The addition of video in the classroom re-technologizes pedagogy by forcing us to gaze at the materiality of its apparatus. Distance learning, as the excess of technology, helps the technology of the Socratic dialogue to remain unsaid. In our discussion of whether or not people are willing to write letters to the editor, it occurred to me that we forget how much newspapers are themselves technologies of discourse. Surrounding ourselves with these overt forms that we can point to as technology, we are able to forget how much of our world is technology.

What was interesting to me last week was the function of the instructor. Is the instructor a gateway for interaction between two classes in two places? How can two groups interact with only partial knowledge of each other and only partial views? How do we know when Others want to speak? Doesn't the instructor become another technology mediating the interactions between the two groups? I keep thinking about one of the first discussions of the critical theory group. We wondered what Howard intended for us to do; what did he want? He did not need to be standing over us watching because we imagined him in that role. He became the placemarker of power even though he was not present. Education as panopticon. But I could not help but wonder last week: what would happen if he left the room? Would classroom life go on as usual? Would things never be the same again?