This past summer I was a student in a distance education class. From June 15 to July 7 I participated in an Information Literacy class taught by Dr. Julie Tallman at the University of Georgia. My participation was entirely via e-mail and via an electronic course package used by many other colleges and universities that UGA called Web CT.
One of my several reasons for taking this class was to better understand what it is like to be a distance ed student. While I had previously taken a class on designing courses for distance delivery, and a class that was a hybrid(parts of the class electronic and parts face-to-face), I wanted to know what it feels like to be a completely distant student. It frequently felt very strange!
I'm a librarian at Virginia Tech, so there was no question about good access to resources at my end. But I sensed in some of my colleagues, all of whom were in Georgia, some access frustrations. The one that elicited the most discussion (all electronic, of course) was where to find the textbooks. Library access wasn't an issue, but that probably was because most of the participants were librarians or school library media specialists.
To my mind the greatest strength in this kind of class is the flexibility it allows a student. The class began on Monday, June 12, but I didn't have access to a computer until thursday, June 15. (I admit it I was on vacation.) In that time, the class had met once face-to-face, had apparently established some ground rules for the future of the class, and had proceeded to begin discussion of issues related to the class. My lateness in joining the class meant that I had to figure out on my own some of what was going on with the class. But it also meant I didn't have to cut my vacation short. (And if I had been really dedicated—and I admit the thought occurred to me—I could have lugged my laptop and joined the class on time. But life's too short to combine vacations and classes, isn't it?)
Another component of this flexibility is being able to participate in a 24/7 time frame. I was working while taking the class and though I had blocked off three hours each evening in which to do class work, that time frequently wasn't available. But I still could complete the work and participate in discussions by logging onto the web site as time allowed and by dropping in on the discussions whenever I had a few minutes available. The other participants and I also spent a surprising amount of time taking part in discussions on the weekends, including one participant who logged in one Saturday between a bridal luncheon and a wedding.
One of the greatest weaknesses that I see in this kind of delivery is the sense of disconnectedness from the class that I felt. There were several times when I considered telephoning the professor or other students, just to hear what they sounded like so I could try to have a better sense of some of the conversational dynamics that I could only infer from the WebCT discussions.Dr. Tallman posted photographs and short biographies of all of the participants during the second week of class and that helped some.But there is a sense of isolation that I found surprisingly disconcerting.
The flexibility of the class is also one of its weaknesses. I had seen the literature reporting that a distanced student has to be pretty motivated to keep up and to get assignments turned in on time and I found that to be part of my own experience. It's easy to postpone things until the last minute when there is little structure provided.
I used the WebCT bulletin board to ask my fellow students about their reaction to the experience of taking the class remotely. The responses were largely positive.
From a student who was taking her first class of this kind came the comment that she was“very nervous and unsure about it at first” but came to really enjoy it, and the statement that she felt that she had gotten as much from the class as she would have if she had been taking it in a traditional setting. Another commented that she had taken several online classes and that she got “more comfortable with it everytime.”
Dr. Tallman's flexibility and approachability in dealing with the class were mentioned. One student commented on how positive it was to have Dr. Tallman's considered comments and responses to questions as part of the bulletin board postings.
Several people expressed pleasure in being able to pick and choose the times that they accessed the course and participated in discussions. A caveat added by one participant regarding the lack of structure was that what she was getting out of the class was dependent on what she was putting into it.
The lack of personal interaction was cited by several people: “I still have a hard time with typed messages instead of face-to-face.” However, another commented that the bulletin board was a “better alternative” for discussion than she had thought possible before she experienced it. She went on to say that she felt that she knew her electronic classmates better than in some traditional classes and that the“information and tip sharing” that took place via the bulletin board had encouraged her.
One student commented that she was hesitant about participating in the bulletin board discussions because she wasn't sure how her comments would add to the conversation, further commenting that she probably wouldn't have hesitated to add to a face-to-face conversation! She went on to say that she had participated in several distance-learning experiences and had found them surprisingly different.
So how did all of this work out for me? Very well, thank you! I was able to take a class on a topic that interests me. I was able to experience a learning medium that is increasingly common and that requires us as librarians to rethink access issues. The flexibility of the class allowed me to do much of the work at night and on weekends (and not during my vacation).I quickly realized that all of us in the class were a bit discombobulated by the process and that we all got used to it quickly. The different perspectives were wonderful and reminded me of what is being done outside of my higher education environment. And though I would probably quit right now if I knew that I was a permanent distance ed student with no opportunity for the face-to-face and on-campus experiences that are so enriching, I found this to be a wonderful experience, well worth the inherent anxieties. And, yes, I did get all my work turned in on time and yes, I did pass!