"I'm not one-at-a-timing-'em here, I'm mass-communicatin'-'em"
(Governor Pappy O'Daniel, on not shaking hands with his constituents as he enters a radio station to make an address in O Brother, Where Art Thou, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.)
Distance learning appears to be all the rage. Not surprisingly, I am writing this paper to be presented as a distance learning experience-an online conference. The format of this conference enables those who participate to read this paper in advance, reflect on it (in as critical fashion as they are inclined), and to attend an online real-time discussion via a MOO to discuss the issues raised here. What is being valued in this format? Sharing of work; engaging in colleagues' work; interaction regarding that work-a certain type of interaction, that is real-time conversation. What appears to be valued in real-time conversation is the ability to ask and answer, build immediately on others' ideas, sense other people's presence. There are other ways to achieve the experience of sharing work and engaging in exchanges about that work, but clearly, there is something important enough about having conversations in some form of presence that a great deal of effort has been put into designing the conference in this fashion. In this paper, I would like to analyze those values and the opportunities to incorporate them into distance learning a bit more.
Distance learning, being all the rage and all, presents educators with big questions. [note] The trend to provide expanded online learning opportunities requires us to ask how offering education in certain formats constructs the act of learning. Do we understand learning as an activity or as the exposure to and digestion of content? Distance learning also begs us to ask in whose interest distributed learning opportunities work. Is distance learning bringing the gift of access to higher education to underserved populations, or is it providing an increasingly corporatized higher education administration with a source of profit? We have to ask what distance learning means for academic labor. Does the packaging of courses for online delivery suggest the deskilling, devaluing, and downsizing of the professor/instructor? And we have to ask what distance learning course delivery means in terms of student and instructor experience. Does distance learning change the role of the university in terms of socialization? Does distance learning disrupt certain geographical community functions of the university? And, we must ask what all these possibilities mean for the complex socio-economic system that higher education is imbricated in.
These are all dissertation topics (in case any one needs one), and will
not obviously be answered here in this paper. However, decisions are rapidly
being made in the places we work, initiatives are being funded, pursued,
and enacted in our institutions, and imperatives are being set for our
programs. Our involvement in the analyses of these questions and in the
articulation of distance learning initiatives is essential. One significant
and "practical" site at which our involvement must be active is at the
level of the technology that is chosen for course delivery.
Values inscribed in technology
Technology is not a matter of simple instrumentality. The instruments of technology are steeped in the larger ideological frameworks that impel their creation. Those instruments certainly influence and construct values by reproducing the dominant values that created them, or perhaps alter, exaggerate, or create unexpected values as the instruments are used in differing contexts. Technological instruments become players in the ideological mix. They are not appendages or mere representations of those values. They are actively shaped by and shape the way we understand the world we interact with through those instruments. Marcuse argued that "[w]e do not ask for the influence or effect of technology on the human individuals. For they are themselves an integral part and factor of technology, not only as the men [sic] who invent or attend to machinery but also as the social groups which direct its application and utilization" (138). Similarly, Feenberg claims, "Modern technology is no more neutral than medieval cathedrals or The Great Wall of China; it embodies the values of a particular industrial civilization and especially of its elites, which rest their claims to hegemony on technical mastery" (v). All of the instruments or applications of technology can be understood as embodying and acting on those values in various ways.
To find these ideological values at work takes only a bit of analysis. For example, I often ask my students to identify a "technology" to analyze, examining the ideological apparatus behind the technology and the interests served by it. Students are often interested in stumping me in this discussion. Once the students came up with dental floss as the object of analysis. As we talked about the "technology" of flossing one's teeth, students realized that behind such technologies were values about hygiene and beauty, the creation of a commodity, and in fact, a whole market, and assumptions about our common diet. While dental floss may appear to be merely instrumental and in many ways trivial, a broader analysis reveals that it is a major player in perpetuating and constructing the dominant values that created it to begin with.
Educational technologies are also deeply embedded in dominant values and applications of those technologies have implications for constructing, reproducing, or challenging those values. As decisions are made about what technologies to utilize in educational settings, the participation of informed, critical educators in those decisions provides the opportunity for bringing in these analyses. The decision and design process, as Feenberg has pointed out (Alternative Modernity)[NOTE], is a productive point at which to assess the values and interests at work in technology implementation, and, more importantly, to intervene in order to realize different values (or to resist dominant values). Of course, design and decision-making processes are not the only sites at which these interventions can occur, and often we do not have the option of participating in these sites, or when we do, our input is ignored or misconstrued. It is important for educators to also identify ways to address issues of mandatory implementation or how to deal with decisions impacting teaching when they have already been made. [NOTE]
However, when the opportunity does come along to participate in the
design and decision-making process regarding distance learning, we can
look to synchronous communication tools as providing one response to a
number of concerns that distance learning raises.
Synchronous communication tools
Synchronous communication has been defined as: "Data communications in which transmissions are sent at a fixed rate, with the sending and receiving devices synchronized. Synchronous communication occur in real-time, e.g., with two or more users communicating online at the same time to one another" (Berge, et al). Synchronous communication is "real-time" communication. Users are sending and receiving information at the same time, rather than accessing information that has been sent at another time (asynchronous communication). You are reading this paper, for example, as an asynchronous form of communication on a web page. (Though I may have just put it up here "just in time"!) If you participate in the discussion about the paper on Connections MOO, that will be a form of synchronous communication (if you read the logs later, that again will be asynchronous).
Synchronous communication tools include phone lines, chat rooms, and MOO/MUD environments. Such tools can be simple text exchanges (such as chat boxes), or they can be complicated environments that enable text, multimedia, file-sharing, programming, etc (such as some MOO's or the Workplace client I discuss later in this paper). There are a number of possibilities available for creating synchronous and polysynchronous (both synchronous and asynchronous) environments for learning, and some current educational packages attempt to incorporate synchronous tools into a combination of tools (WebCT, for example). Because there is such a variety of tools, and such a variety of factors that impact the usefulness and applicability of specific tools to specific situations, it is important to analyze those options according to specific goals.
In general, though, synchronous communication tools tend to:
Resources for Learning Professional Communication
In spring of 2000, Dr. Tom Miller and Dr. Ken McAlllister from The University of Arizona's Department of English were given a grant to develop a business and technical writing online resource that included general professional communication resources for the public and traditional business and technical writing courses as well as a completely online version of a business writing course. The grant came from UA's New Learning Environments and Instructional Technology Grants Program, part of the campus' initiative to encourage faculty to develop educational technology programs, including online and distributed learning. The funded proposal from the English department sought to develop resources, make those resources available to the teaching community as well as to provide outreach for professionals needing writing assistance on the job, and to explore the potential for distance learning in professional communication. The distance learning piece of the project was to become my area of focus when I was hired into the team during the summer of 2000. [NOTE]
The process of operationalizing the grant project involved a good deal of collaboration and decision-making. Three graduate students (myself and two other Rhetoric students) worked with the two principal faculty to determine what the focus of the project should be. We met regularly to discuss the issues that such a project would bring up, and included in those discussions was an emphasis that we determine our goals before making any decisions about technology adaptation or design. We reasoned that prematurely identifying a technology might in fact shape the project, rather than allowing the values and goals we wanted to pursue determine what technology to use and how to implement those decisions.
The conversations were at times contentious and difficult. The process was interrupted often by the fact that going into the project, all the team members had assumptions that needed to be examined and often re-evaluated. For example, one team member assumed that the technology decision would be the least problematic part of the process. We had to spend time interrogating the implications of certain technology choices for the goals of our project. Did we want accessibility to determine our design, or did we want to target higher-end technology users? Did we want the course to function as an "on-demand" course, or as a fairly structured environment? Did we want the site to be interactive or a text-like resource?
In order to make these decisions, we researched what was currently offered, compared programs from profit-oriented private sources and more traditional educational institutions, and we tested various technologies in order to see what our options were and what we would want to adapt. My focus for the most part was in terms of course delivery and to collaborate on the curriculum design. We decided to focus on the business writing course materials development, and to design an online version that we could pilot in the Spring of 2001. Our rationale was that we were most concerned with developing in-house resource materials to contribute to shaping the way professional communication might be taught in our institution, including options for alternative course delivery, and from those materials, we would be able to design a more public resource.
The idea, then, became to develop course materials for use in traditional (or hybrid) courses and then to examine how the entirely online course might be adapted from those materials. From my perspective, the single biggest issue in terms of what the distance learning version of the course would look like was the course delivery technology we chose. The initial discussion that needed to take place about that course was in terms of what was most important in such a learning scenario: content or interaction.
What's the educational experience?
There is a plethora of professional communication textbooks and online resources. [NOTE] Anyone who needs memo advice, questions about comma usage answered, or examples of resumes and has the ability to use a search-engine or can venture into a public library can find help on those issues. Weighing and analyzing that help, determining if it is good or bad advice is another issue, however, and one might (as one did) argue that we could provide an academically superior resource and text site, password protect that site, and require people to register into a course to gain access to that material. This scenario, of course, is common, and the assumption behind that approach is that it is the content or formal issues of professional communication that is valuable. Even if the materials include "critical concepts," such as rhetorical analysis skills, or even elements of critique, the assumption is that what the university offers as an educational experience is access to content materials.
So, while the team agreed that the site should be useful in terms of course and practical advice resources, the team was in a bit of disagreement about whether those materials were in fact the primary focus for the online course. At issue here is the significant question that comes up time and again regarding distance learning--"who owns this course?" If we understand course content, notes, advice, lectures, texts as defining a learning experience, those aspects of the course are easily commidified, produced as products, and "sold" in packaged formats. However, is this really what an educational experience is about? Most educators' experience in the classroom suggests that, in fact, no, students do not necessarily learn their most important lessons from viewing a lecture or reading a textbook and turning in reiterations of those texts and lectures.
An argument for professional communication courses in this regard is that in a university setting, where scholarship, critical enquiry, and humanistic study is (or claims to be) as valued as rote skills and proficiencies, part of what a communication course is about is learning to negotiate professional settings and not simply writing formal documents, but understanding the situatedness of communication in order to respond to those situations appropriately. Despite the somewhat cliched (and I'd suggest dangerous) claim that the classroom is not the "real world," for students of professional communication, the classroom is a professional setting in which professional, situation-specific discourse needs to be discovered and utilized with proficiency and awareness. The interaction between students and students, and students and instructors is the learning experience in a professional communication course (and other communication/writing courses). The labor of such a course for both the instructor and the student is not the formal content of what a memo should look like, but the ability to communicate values, explore those values and actively examine what our communication constructs. That is to say, the experience of communicating and the opportunity for active reflection on that communication for the sake of that reflection and analysis is what makes the educational experience different from and beyond the actual content of the course. Such interaction is based on interaction, collaborative learning (intentional or not), and on a sense of belonging to and having to respond to some form of community.
These elements of an educational experience also require institutionally available time for students and instructors to create and facilitate such interactions. Many arguments for distance learning are made in terms of "time"... People who work full-time, have a family, and cannot afford to commute to institutions of education still need certain course-work in order to make themselves more economically mobile or to respond to job requirements (or the tenuousness of their jobs). Distance learning allows them to access the course content at their convenience (midnight, after the children have gone to sleep, etc). Administrative decision-makers often argue that institutions of higher education can no longer be competitive without responding to consumer demands for such time-flexibility. While I am sympathetic with the distance learner who needs courses to be flexible and needs those courses not to become yet another drain on their time, it is clear that to respond to such a problem by commodifying educational experiences in terms of "consumer demand" rather than to critique and resist the system that creates that consumer demand. I would argue that the function of "higher education" and institutions of higher education should be, in this case, in the best interests of the students and individuals rather than in the economic system that convinces its subjects that they do not deserve or require the time to engage in more humanistic learning experiences. [NOTE]
The discussions and decisions made about this particular course, then,
were informed by these critical questions and arguments. As a development
team made up of those who do and value the labor of education, we were
able to articulate the goals that would determine the type of technology
to utilize in the delivery of our understood educational experience.
Choosing a technology application
Having determined that whatever online course structure we created would incorporate interactivity and opportunities for collaboration, I set out on the task of identifying the best application for the online version of the course. In 1998 and 1999, I collaborated on the design and development of OldPuebloMOO, the university's first educational MOO. I had used the MOO extensively in composition courses, including a business writing course. The MOO, I found, was an effective technology for engaging in synchronous course communication, and the fact that the communication occurs as text-based is of great value for a writing course. Nonetheless, my own analyses of utilizing the MOO for courses pointed out some limitations which I felt important to consider. I have written on these limitations elsewhere, but for my purposes here, briefly the limitations were basically in terms of students' learning curves with the environment which also led them to be somewhat limited in being able to create and utilize the tools available on the MOO. In as much as the course materials we were creating were to be web-based (for use beyond the online course) and the course itself would incorporate the use of documents and multimedia presentations, I was also hoping to find a way to incorporate documents into the environment without depending on the server-side web client that OldPuebloMOO utilizes. And lastly, I was hoping to find a way to increase the potential for collaborative document writing. None of this is to say that the MOO is not one of the single best applications for polysynchronous work. In this context, I simply felt that utilizing the MOO might not be the most accessible and successful approach.
I analyzed various other options for creating a synchronous element for the online course, including web-based virtual offices, web-chat programs, conferencing software, and the features in existing educational applications (such as WebCT). [NOTE] I came across "StuffInCommon" while I was doing this research, and was completely impressed with the technology. StuffInCommon allows users to create virtual communities on a public server with specific login capabilities. What impressed me most about the communities were that they were based on a shared whiteboard and incorporated many of the spatial metaphors of MOOs (doorways, separate rooms, tools in a room, paging). The whiteboard allowed for upload of any type of file (text, images, multimedia, etc), and users could type directly onto the whiteboard, or use the common drawing tools as well. My concern with the application was that it was server-side technology, which as with the MOO-client, I have found to be a bit unstable, and overly demanding on a user's system (that is, requiring a higher-end, no-problem kind of system). While the benefits of server-side applications are many (including students being able to access from any computer without having to download a client), I was concerned that access and predictability might be a problem down the road with this particular course.
StuffInCommon is a Teamwave
application, and the technical support people from Teamwave contacted me
shortly after I set up my "test" community to evaluate the application.[NOTE]
I had set up these communities on at least six other virtual office-like
servers, and Teamwave was the only company to initiate contact with me
to solicit my feedback on the service. I told them what I was investigating
and my concerns, including a concern for having some control over programming
capabilities in order to modify tools if that was something we would want
to do. The tech-support person suggested I look at another Teamwave product,
the Workplace[c] client. Interestingly enough, as we were doing these evaluations,
the University of Arizona became a WebCT institution and WebCT incorporated
a version of the StuffInCommon program into its tool-package. That suggested
to me that we were on the right track.[NOTE]
The Client: Workplace by Teamwave
The Workplace environment by Teamwave has a server and stand-alone desk-top clients that can connect directly into any Workplace server. Both the client and server are configurable for any Windows, Mac, or Linux operating systems. To run a server beyond the free demo-period, a site license must be purchased, but the client is distributed freely, and there is a public demonstration server that anyone with the client can log into and test. The client can run in "stand-alone" mode, allowing users to do work offline and transfer that work directly to the host server when connected. For Windows, the server and client together are only 4.3 Mbytes to download, and the client alone is only 3.0 Mbytes, not an especially onerous download on even the slowest system. Installation is simple, and the help text on both the Teamwave site and in the program itself is clear.
The Workplace environment itself is much the same as the StuffInCommon environment I described above. The navigation is based on geographical movement through doorways and rooms. The client is designed so one can see a list of all the rooms at all times, as well as who else is in those rooms. The client tells the user who is logged on and where they are at in a different window, and it tells the user who is in the particular room s/he is in at any given moment. A user can page or get more information about other users simply by clicking on names in the windows. In each particular room, there is a shared whiteboard and a chat window. "Tools" can be placed on the whiteboard as can text boxes and drawings. The tools include post-it notes, file holders, image holders, file viewers, message boards, doorways into other rooms, URL references, voting tools, meeting rosters, calendars, slide presentations, and simple databases. When a tool is created, it is hosted on the server and accessible by any user. So, for example, if I use a file holder to upload a text document, or a multimedia file, or any other type of file, a copy is placed on the server and another user can "view" that file or "get" (download) a copy onto their own hard drive. Post-it notes can be typed on directly in the environment and others can contribute to that document. If users wish, they can then save that collaboratively written document. The file viewer tool allows all users in the room to read a text document, and there are indicators on the side of the viewer that show where each individual is "located" in the document by the scroll bar. All the rooms and tools have "privileges" and "permissions" settings, so a user can create a tool and protect it from being deleted or changed by another user.
[a visual aid...]
The chat feature of the client enables an ongoing discussion between any user in the same room which can be recorded in a log as a transcript. The rooms can be set up to "send existing chat" to a user who enters a room while a discussion is taking place. The white-board, toolbars, and chat box can all be resized or hidden to allow a user to focus on the area of most relevance, or to be able to see all simultaneously. There is an indicator in the corner of the interface that shows where every user in the room's cursor is, where they are in the scroll box, and if there are open tools below the field in your window. These features give the environment a "peopled" sense. Users get a geographical and visual representation of where others are in the room and can see where they are working on the screen. These are all features that value interactivity and enable collaboration and community.
In addition to the many features of the Workplace client, what was perhaps
most convincing to me in terms of its applicability as an educational tool
for an online course was the fact that it was so easy to use. I tested
the application and tools myself for a bit, but determined that I was probably
not the best measure of such things given my own experience with these
types of environment. I asked three different people to get on the test
server I set up and test the software with me. I chose these three people
because they have computers but do not consider themselves to be able to
do much beyond email and websurfing. Two of them were in remote locations
and I simply told them to download the client, install it, and sign in
under the login names I had created for them. They did so, and within minutes
were building their own rooms, chatting with me, using all the tools, and
having a general fun-time with the environment. I was convinced and began
lobbying for our team to adapt this technology for the online course delivery
portion of Profcomm.
I was successful in lobbying the team and our computer support people on campus to purchase a small site license and install Workplace on our test server. The reason I was able to convince the various groups to pursue this decision was that I had done a great deal of research and compiled a significant argument for the software, and because I had been actively involved in such processes before on campus. It is important to note that in order for our recommendations and suggestions to be taken seriously, we need to be at the table and speak confidently about these issues.
We developed web-based resources and course materials for an extensive web-site that is currently being produced and revised, and at the same time, I built a course delivery environment on our Workplace server to accompany those materials and to serve as the "classroom" for my online section of the course. We advertised the course only to students who were signing up for business writing (English 307 at UA), and made sure to tell students that the course would be entirely online and they would be required to have appropriate technology [NOTE]. Additionally, in order for students to take the course, they were required to attend the first class session, the only in-person meeting orientation. That we required this in-person orientation demonstrated our own concerns about offering an online course. We felt that students would appreciate being able to "see" the instructor at least before beginning an entirely online experience, and we felt it might be important for students to get introduced to the technology we would be using for the semester.In retrospect, that orientation was perhaps not necessary in terms of the success of the course, however, it was comforting for both me as the instructor and for my students.
The course has been meeting online all semester. I would say the course is in most senses a "success"... the students are achieving the course goals and their work demonstrates that. We have a sense of "community" as a class, which is demonstrated through their willingness to collaborate with each other, their communications outside of class-time, and their high level of interaction with me as the instructor through email and conferences. The students claim to enjoy this course more than most other regular courses (for all of them this is their first online course) they have or are taking. They are invested in their work, are highly self-directed, and feel like their abilities to be responsible for their own learning have been validated and respected. Unlike almost every other computer-enhanced course I have taught, none of the students complains about or fights with the Workplace client. In fact, the only time we have had any significant amount of frustration regarding technology was when the students were trying to do their own HTML documents and had trouble with the applications available for FTP or with accessing their accounts on the university server.
As an instructor, I appreciate the fact that the Workplace client enables me to store and retrieve student documents easily. I appreciated the fact that I have not had to spend any significant amount of class time talking about how to use the technology. I appreciate having a sense of where my students are in the classroom, if they are active or idle, and if they are looking at the documents I have asked them to look at during class. I appreciate that there are page and whisper features on the client that enable students to ask me questions when they are lost without disrupting the rest of class, or to perhaps ask each other questions (or gossip, or whatever) during class without my feeling interrupted, or even knowing. I appreciate the ease with which I can post announcements and resources without having to modify webpages or bombard students with emails. I appreciate having a constant archive of my students' work, my own "lecture notes" and presentations, and recordings of class sessions.
What is also valuable about this online version of the course is that as we developed extensive text resources and assignment guidelines for the website, I do not spend a great deal of time in class going over formal issues in professional communication. The associated web resources provide students with plenty of opportunity to find out what elements go in a memo. Because the course development team had the conversations we did about what was significant about a classroom-based educational experience and by emphasizing those values in the design of the course and learning environment, that has become more of my own instructional focus as well. I spend class time talking about the values that are constructed in certain types of communication. I spend class time and discussions focusing on critiquing dominant values that professional communication tends to reproduce. I spend class time asking my students to analyze our own interactions and to reflect on what those interactions mean for professional communication. My students depend on the resources to give them "practical" advice, but depend on me to help them explicate the more critical and contextual features of professional communication. They clearly do not feel that the resources adequately tell them what professional communication is. The reason they know this is that we talk about those issues together in class. Because they interact with me regularly, they value my opinion about what professional communication is beyond the format of documents. Over the course of the semester, I have watched them learn to move beyond format questions into thoughtful consideration of their work and the implications of that work.
I do not believe I could have achieved the amount of success I did in
this class without synchronous communication tools, and I believe that
the Workplace client contributed to that success because it is a highly
interactive, flexible tool that enables me to enact a certain type of learning
environment. I am convinced that utilizing this tool in this course was
the appropriate choice. However, I would like to take a moment to critique
the course in general to perhaps tease out some of the implications of
distance education, even with a synchronous communication element.
The online version of the business writing course, in my analysis, had some limitations and some of what happened in the course warrant further attention. The most notable characteristic of the course was its high early attrition rate. We had capped the course at nineteen students and placed the restriction that students had to attend the first day orientation session in order to be or remain enrolled in the course. In a traditional university setting, this limitation on first day registration automatically causes attrition because students tend to juggle their schedules and make decisions throughout the first weeks of the semester. I turned away several students who very much wanted to join the class, and lost several students to scheduling conflicts from the second class meeting. By the time the drop period for the course was over, I was down to twelve students. I did not lose any of those students because of the technology, per se. That is, the students who used the technology did so with no problems. The students who dropped did so because they found the fact that they would be meeting entirely online threatening and disconcerting. They felt at the early point in the semester that they just would not be able to do a distance education course, no matter how easy the technology was. This indicates that despite much of the hype, there are still major constructions of traditional and online learning that exist. Just as we all thought our students would know more about computers than we do and would love using computers in the classroom but found that they were not proficient and often downright scared of computer-mediated classrooms, we need to recognize that the much touted "student-demand" for distance learning is not necessarily a reality for students.
I also discovered that this online offering of a course that is offered on campus to a group of students who are for the most part doing traditional programs is not necessarily appropriate. I would recommend that the technology-enhanced elements of the course, including the use of the Workplace environment, would have been an ideal component of a regularly offered course, but that it created un-anticipated consequences as a complete replacement for a regular course. The students in this course all were on-campus for other courses, and often simply returned to their dorms to sign on for this particular course. In and of itself, this is not really a problem, and we might even argue this situation allows students to experience and learn to negotiate varying types of "communities" and ways of learning. Certainly, I have made this argument for utilizing a MOO for part of my instruction in other courses. However, there are other factors to consider in the completely online version of this course.
Students became highly self-directed very quickly in the course. Assignments and resources for the assignments were available to them online and it was incumbent upon them to do the work from those resources. They responded to that format quite well, and this has been one of the major benefits of the course materials. However, because the class sessions themselves were recorded and transcripts were available and because the online course delivery gave students a great deal of flexibility in terms of meeting times, students tended to rely on those elements of the course more than attending the class sessions and participating in class discussions. Interestingly enough, it was all the benefits of a synchronous communication tool (recording sessions, easy posting of notes and tools, asynchronous communication features) that tended to give students the leeway to individually choose not to participate in many of the classes. While it is possible to address this issue through course design (attendance requirements, etc.), the fact remains that offering a course exclusively online tends to create the students' expectations of a great deal of flexibility in terms of their time spent in class meetings. If this environment were part of a traditional class setting, those expectations are not so pronounced. In teaching an entirely online version of this course again, I would pay much more attention to those expectations and consider ways to create more incentive for participation in the online real-time sessions. [NOTE]
In rethinking ways to make the online course not simply a replacement
or reproduction of a traditional course, I think this offering might be
reconsidered in terms of who would benefit from virtual attendance. For
example, this type of course opportunity might be more appropriate for
students involved with other off-campus activities or other distance learning
programs. The course itself could be restructured to be significantly different
from a traditional course and the online meetings could be reconfigured
to accomplish other goals. A traditional one-hour lecture period works
in a classroom where people are physically present, but perhaps online
teaching requires fewer but longer sessions that enable students to process
the conversations and text materials they are interacting with in environments
such as MOOs and Workplace. Or, as my experience with fewer students online
proved to be ideal in terms of fostering a great deal of valuable interaction,
perhaps traditional meeting times could be divided between groups of students.
One day a certain group of students meets online with the instructor, while
the other students work on web-based assignments and reviews the transcripts,
and meets another day with the instructor. In that case it might be possible
to envision increasing student-instructor interaction on a smaller student/instructor
ratio without decreasing the size of the class or requiring any more contact
hours for instructors. In this case, utilizing technology applications
that are best suited for smaller groups of users helps us to argue for
alternative ways to meet with our students, perhaps addressing approaches
to class-size issues.
In qualifying my own responses to the critiques I have suggested above, I hope to make it clear that as good a client as Workplace is and as good an experience as I am having with the online business writing course, the big questions that distance learning poses remain in large part unanswered. What this particular experience does demonstrate, however, is that: