Having never participated in any type of teleconferencing before, I have to admit that at first I was quite awed by the technology. By the second class as I became more used to being on camera and reacting to others on camera, I could take a more objective view of the situation. Several aspects of distance learning and this class in particular interest me.
The first thing that strikes me is that having cameras in the room can make the learning experience a bit awkward. Some of the people on both campuses seem a bit uncomfortable when on camera. This suggests that in general this type of learning environment can be even more intimidating to students than the regular classroom situation. When a person speaks, since the monitor is up front, all eyes will be focused on him or her. This can be very disconcerting for students who are insecure about their public selves (appearance, speech, mannerisms, etc.). Normally shy students may have even less reason to speak up. Given that classroom participation sometimes affects a person's grade, these people will lose out.
To fully participate in this course and gain the most from it (at least to this point) it seems that students need to have more than a basic understanding of the technology involved. For many people learning how to access the Web or use email will not be difficult. But for others it can be a terrifying experience. In order for a class like this to work (where the Internet is vital part of the experience) I think many students will either need to be taught the basics or a prerequisite Internet class be a requirement. Additionally, this type of class works best for students who have access to the Internet from home. Students without home computers or the required skill to install the proper hardware and software will be at a disadvantage.
Distance learning can be a depersonalizing experience if it is used as just an extension of the large lecture hall. Not only will students at the remote site have very limited if any contact with the teacher, they will also be unable to build physical bonds with the students at the distant site. At least in the depersonalized large lecture hall, students can make attempts at meeting and interacting with almost anyone else in the class. With distance learning, if two people connect at the different sites, emailing each other (if this resource is available) most likely will not provide the same kind of human relations dynamic that can be attained in a physical classroom. But it can be a more personalized, if the teacher in charge uses the technology to make students work together on projects cross campus in an attempt to build social bonds between students.
On the plus side, distance learning is a dynamic way to bring education to people in remote areas or without the resources to provide certain classes. Universities will be able to set up remote sites in distant communities to provide 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.)