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ATPM 8.11
November 2002



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The Candy Apple

by Ellyn Ritterskamp,

From a Distance…

For the past couple of months, I’ve been having my first experience with distance learning and I’m very impressed with the kinds of experiences it makes possible. I’ve been a big fan of bulletin board-style message boards for a couple of years anyway, and that’s one of the facets of this course I’m working with that has me so excited. It also includes chat, e-mail, a calendar, assignment posts, and the syllabus.

The course is engineering ethics, and it’s part of the distance learning effort at my local state-supported university. I’m a teaching assistant—I have little background in engineering, but am reasonably well-grounded in ethics. Most of the students at this school are commuters anyway, so it makes sense to offer certain types of courses online rather than in person. This course is reading- and discussion-based (there’s no hands-on element), so there’s no need to require in-person attendance. The students read the textbook material, discuss issues in pre-determined groups, and then write summaries of their discussions so we’ll have something to grade. They also have a few quizzes—multiple-choice with radio buttons.

One of the foundational ideas that makes this work is that learning can occur in almost any environment. Certain types of learning happen better in certain types of environments, but the basic, fundamental thing we’re doing when we learn is asking our brains to process things in new ways. If the kind of learning we’re doing has to do with thinking in conversational, dialogue-encouraging ways, then this venue is as good as a classroom to accomplish that. A phone meeting would work, too, but the method we’re using online has the advantage of not being time-sensitive.

It is precisely this insensitivity to time that makes this kind of course also very practical. Students can post comments at any time of the day and I can read them at 3 AM after work. We’re all happy, especially the majority of us who have full-time jobs and are squeezing in schoolwork as a sideline. This venue allows us to do things when it’s convenient.

I guess what strikes me as neatest about distance learning is that it allows us to explore things at our own pace, which requires discipline; but it also creates a community of learners, which encourages us to participate in a social group. Both approaches are good ones to cultivate.

I’d toyed with the idea of a distance-learning program for an advanced degree of my own, but decided I didn’t want to give up the experience of interaction with a professor I’d met in person. The kinds of courses I take lend themselves to individual and distance work, but not everyone has that same advantage. I don’t know that we want to be quick to discard the idea of classroom meetings for most courses; part of what we’re learning is how to function within a specialized community.

One place where distance learning would be very appropriate is in certain kinds of workplace courses. Say I’m a safety manager for a large manufacturing plant; I need to make sure all the employees there get certified on a particular safety issue. They’ll need one hour of instruction time with a teacher, and then a test, to be sure they’ve understood the material. I’ll have to make sure that employees from all three shifts can arrange to attend a course.

Instead of working through all these logistics for what amounts to a rote memorization exercise that most people will understand quickly, why not try something easier? Why not put the material on an intranet Web site and allow the employees to read it on their own shifts, when they can arrange the time as a normal part of their schedules? They can take the test whenever they want, immediately after reading the study material or several days later, if they need time to let it sink in.

For certain types of college courses, I believe we could go this route already. It requires more upfront time for the professors, but far less time down the road. A worthwhile investment of energy to get it set up properly, and then just check in to be sure folks are participating.

We already have the model in place for long-distance paper courses, in which students study a Bible chapter or a period of history and then take a test. Students have been doing this kind of distance learning for a long time. Our newest incarnation allows them to learn at their own pace without giving up the sense of community. What’s not to like about that?

Distance learning isn’t right for every course, but it sure is convenient for the ones where it fits.


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