Distance for Whom? Webinars

I was struck by our discussion of distance learning during our class Monday.  Well, I would have struck, if I had been paying attention fully.

At the time of our discussion, I was talking to another student in the class on GChat about the discussion, writing a paper, emailing my boss, researching potential Webinar topics and also monitoring my facebook for new notifications.

SI students live within an arm-length of a computer at all times. I think this must have gotten worse when we moved to the North Quad space, where even our cell-phones don’t work, creating email and the internet as a sort of total communication.

This has in some way I think drastically changed the way we as a group learn. Much of my learning has become a strange blend of asynchronous  and synchronous learning. I sit in one class and I learn for another; I write emails, I draft reports, I do research and yes, I do blog-posts. I multi-task.

I once had a class where we had our group project meetings for that class during lecture. We all got into the same Gchat circle, creating agendas and to-do lists, and drafted reports. It saved us probably collectively 40 hours of meeting outside of the class. All while we were supposed to be paying attention to for all purposes was a very informative, interesting lecture.

We spoke at length critically about online learning. We spoke about the emotional impact of distance. We spoke about the issues of technology, time-zones and expectations. Admittedly, I have never taken an online class. But haven’t all of my classes at SI in some way been online? I am online all the time, my brain distant in another class literally working on something or looking at something else. How much more, quantitatively, am I “there” than an online student taking the same class?

Admittedly, I think I’m worse than most. But not by much. I think it’s too easy to say that a online student is “distant” whereas a residential student is not. In terms of expectations, there is increasing distance and asynchronous interaction throughout our academic lives.

I’m not saying I believe we should all take online classes. As I said in class, my coursework I feel is one small part of a larger, perhaps monastic experience I have had at SI, a sort of total immersion. But I think we should first look around at our laptops before we volunteer ourselves as the non-distant ones.


About Ilana the Librarian

I am an aspiring librarian at the University of Michigan.
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7 Responses to Distance for Whom? Webinars

  1. JJ Pionke says:

    Good food for thought, but actual online learning has no face to face element. The chances are good that you would never know what your teacher even looked like. At SI, we are students that multitask to the extreme, but we do see each other, we do interact in the real world and that effects our online interactions. Certainly, online learning can be a rich collaborative learning experience, but I find that it often lacks something as compared to seeing the person across the room, even if we only ever communicate digitally.

    • I do have to ask if you are in class with 500 other freshmen, is there really a face-to-face element in that case?

      • JJ Pionke says:

        Absolutely. You are still in a physical space with other students and with the teacher. In a class that big, you are going to be in discussion sections where you will interact with another teacher. But let’s just stick with lecture for a moment – in 500, I would often ask the teacher questions right before and after class and his answers often generated a new question or insight, sometimes because of his body language. I also often asked other students questions before and after class. Could I have done all of that online? Sure. Do I get more out of it when I do it in person? Yes. Further, yes, I was that person in the front actively engaged with the material. That is not to say that I didn’t check email too, I did. But I also paid a lot of attention to what he said and I asked questions in class.

        Is there a difference in learning f2f or online? I’ve taught in both modalities and there is. I can more easily see that a student is in trouble in f2f. I can get at the root of problems far better in f2f than I can in online because I can read their body language.

  2. I’ve been repeatedly surprised by professors at SI asking students to bring laptops to class. At CWRU and NYU, it was tolerated, but not encouraged (for that matter, the same is true in the English department here at UM). Our professors must know that we’re doing other things, but that lack of full attention is outweighed by the fact that we can pull up texts, take surveys, play with web apps, and generally participate immediately in the things they talk about (I think that 502 and 643 are probably the best examples of this). And I actually think they’re right–engaging with the materials we’re discussing keeps me more focused on class than trying to stare straight at the front of the room, and being able to check my email/write blog posts/chat means that I don’t ever consider skipping a class because I need to be working on something else (let’s face it, coordinating group projects without those tools would be impossible).

    • I believe that is the generally the idea of requiring all SI students to get laptops: for things like that. And generally, by the time we get to this level of education, our engagement is our own prerogative. No one told me I had to use my laptop to multi-task. However, my rationale for using it sounds peculiarly similiar to the reasons people take online classes: I can work more hours at work, I can take more classes, I can get more things done at the same time by doubling up on what I’m doing, I don’t have time elsewhere in my schedule.

      I had the opportunity at SI to take a class (534) where until the midterm we were not allowed to have a laptop in class. It was really hard for me to single-task. I ended up bringing a coloring book to class to occupy my extra energy.

  3. Laura Brubacher says:

    I’m always sort of amazed to see all the non-class-related activity going on in class–amazed because I absolutely cannot function that way. It depends on the class somewhat, I would say, but for the most part, I need to be as focused as possible on what is going on in the room in order to make any sense of it. I would say multitasking comes at a bit of a price–not totally focusing on anything–but I do wish I could manage a little more of it myself.

  4. melbowen says:

    I adore online classes. That being said, while I understand it, what I don’t like is the SI encouragement of laptops in the classroom. Here’s why: when I was in undergrad, hardly anyone brought laptops. In fact, some of my professors specifically discouraged students from bringing laptops because they knew that students were just going on Facebook and/or chatting with friends and not really paying attention to the lecture. I did not use my laptop in classes. I took notes in a notebook and I think I learned a lot more because of it. Now, I use my laptop in classes and while I do pay attention in some of the more interesting classes, I also tend to go on Facebook, chat with friends, read blogs, etc. I am definitely not learning as much because I’m not as engaged. I know that this is my own fault and that I could just stop, but after almost 3 semesters it’s too ingrained now and it’s difficult not to be on my laptop in class. One day about a month ago I accidentally left my computer’s power cord at home and was forced to fully pay attention in a class and I was getting twitchy. I don’t like what in-class laptop use has done to my attention span.

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