Re: Digital Learning Communities

Nick Carbone (nickc@MARLBORO.EDU)
Mon, 2 Sep 1996 23:03:26 -0400

On Mon, 2 Sep 1996, Marcy Bauman wrote:

> But I'm also mindful of other kinds of computer-mediated experiences,
> too: experiences which minimize human contact. Nowadays when I need
> money, I go to the cash machine, and when I want gas I go to the pump
> where I can run my credit card through the card reader; I no longer
> interact casually with people in those situations.

You're in good company. Here's Kurt Vonnegut's take on the
situation you describe with ATM and pay-at-the-pump gas-o-marts. Though
he eschews cmc (and who can blame him since what works for him works for
him), his take on getting out and meeting faces is akin to yours. This
is from September's _Harper's_ and they reprinted it from a November '95
issue of _Inc. Technology_. It's an excerpt from an interview with
Vonnegut that _Harper's_ titled "Technology and Me."

K.V. says:

"I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my
bed, and I'd never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterward I
mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call this woman named Carol out in
Woodstock and say, 'Are you still typing?' Sure she is, and her husband
is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so
we chitchat back and forth, and I say, 'Okay, I'll send you the pages.'
Then I go down the steps and my wife calls, 'Where are you going?'
'Well,' I say, 'I'm going to buy an envelope.' And she says, 'You're
not a poor man. Why don't you buy a thousand envelopes? They'll deliver
them, and you can put them in the closet.' And I say, 'Hush.' So I go
to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and
lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get inline because there
are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them.
The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it's my
turn I ask her if there have been any big winners lately. I get my
envelope and seal it up and go the postal convenience center down the
block at the corner of Forty-seventh Street and Second Avenue, where I'm
secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely
poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had
my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it.
Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the
envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go
home. And I've had a hell of a good time. I tell you, we are here on
Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different."

It's intereesting to see how different uses of cmc fit into to different
spatial contexts. At Umass, where freshman class is huge, something like
3,000 students, where first year courses are big and usually lecture
only, the writing classes are a welcome break because there're usually
only 20-25 students and they get to talkto one another. It's easy to set
up and kick off a cmc class in a LAN where you go almost thoroughly
online and stay there. Students can, I know because this happened to me,
work in the classroom all semester, swap papers, chat on Interch-- err
Common Space (mea presidentia culpa!), and never know who everyone is by
face. It's not smart, but it can end up that way. The size and relative
anononymity that goes with it makes it possible for that to happen.
Students aren't sure what to expect and whatever you give them seems
normal to them, or at least becomes the norm.

Now Marlboro is small. Very small. We have 82 new students on campus
this year, including transfers coming in as sophomores and juniors. That
brings our total up to about 290 or so. Students come for a class size
that averages about 8-1 on the student to teacher scale. It's all first
names here from Paul on down. Students literally can't see the point of
sitting behind screens when they know everyone on campus and can talkto
them at anytime. In fact they stop typing and turn and talk. There're
are computers on campus, and we're wiring dorms and increasing how they
are used, but in-a-class cmc is not a priority because teh community
gestalt makes it a very low priority. Cross class ventures, e-mail
messaging, etc. work, but not a class like someof you have and I used to do.

> I'm also thinking about this because of the discussions I read on
> some distance education lists. It's becoming increasingly common for
> institutions to want to buy classes wholesale, as in, "My school is
> looking for an introductory management course covering the following
> principles. Anyone got one for sale?" There are so many ways in which
> this disturbs me, it's hard to count them all; just as when we shifted
> from one-room schoolhouses to multi-graded schools, we lost some
> important assumptions about enterprises and kids learning from each other, I
> think that the move to computerized learning may mean that we'll lose
> some equally important assumptions about the relationship between teachers,
> learners, and subject matter.

One of the most powerful metaphors I've heard is the notion of the
electronic plantation; picking up courses piece-meal is right out of that
tradition (I already picked tobacco once in my life, don't want to get
paid that way again.). One assumption I've always had is that at some
point you need to see how how someone's eyes and face react to what you
say. So much of the fun of teaching writing is the conferencing part. I
know it can be one online, having done it, but there's a range of nuances
that can be had working side-by-side with a student before a page or
screen. This is not to dis distance ed.; there are lots of good things
about it. CMC is a wonderful adjunct ability to bring into play and it's
fun to experiment with how much emphasis to give it, but one of the
reasons I like to teach is because I like to see students, in my office,
between classes, at lunch.

Being in the same place is really important to me, any way, even though I
hardly ever say much that is useful, just chitchat and some farting
around, between classes and conferences. But it sure is fun. I can't
see being all electric all the time being like that. Not for me.

Nick Carbone, Writing Instructor
Marlboro College
Marlboro, VT 05344