Digital Learning Communities

Marcy Bauman (marcyb@UMD.UMICH.EDU)
Mon, 2 Sep 1996 17:06:04 -0400

On Mon, 2 Sep 1996, Bob King wrote:

> Marcy, when we've talked about technology in my classes it's always
> interesting to me that students worry a lot about the latter item -- the
> loss of community -- but when I ask them to recount for me their wonderful
> experiences of learning community (or any other sort of community for that
> matter) prior to computers, the going gets tougher! In other words,
> some of this worry is really about losing a kind of nostalgia for
> something that never was anyway. I've usually been able to point out
> that, via using CMC, they in fact know each other quite a bit better than
> they would have in the good old days. In my own case, I made it all the
> way through undergrad university w/o getting to know anyone, or they me,
> because all I had to do was show up for class/lectures, take tests, and
> write papers.

Good points. Those have been my experiences with CMC too; I'd
certainly say that computers don't necessarily depersonalize things. I'm
one of many people who've found a community out here, and like many
others, I've had that bizarre and wonderful experience of meeting people
f2f when I've known them online for a while. There's no reason you can't
maintain human contact in an electronic world, to be sure.

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. I'm not trying to
promulgate a sort of good ol' days nostalgia, when everything was
Mayberry and Andy and Barney were always around to help, nor am I saying
that we oughta throw the machines out the window. I'm just wondering
what purposes -- what tangential societal glue, maybe -- those casual
contacts served, or what human needs got fulfilled that are not now going
to be fulfilled, and that we'll have to find other ways to meet.

I am interested in the ways in which, because CMC frees us from
space and time constraints, the notion of "learning communities"
changes. I noticed when I taught an online composition course this
spring that it was a _lot_ harder to get people involved and feeling like
part of a group than it is in my f2f classes. And I suspect that
although you didn't get to know anybody in your undergrad classes, the
fact that you _did_ show up to a particular location at a particular time
had some community-building effect. There's a sense in which actually
going somewhere different at a specially-designated time to meet with
others whose purpose in going there is (roughly) the same as yours has a
profound effect on the dynamics which occur at that place & time. I
don't think we know much about those effects, because we've never been in
a position to create a community _without_ temporal & spatial constraints
before. I also suspect it may be a trick to replicate them in cyberspace
-- or maybe it isn't even necessary to do so, because community will come
to mean something different out here.

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.

I think it's especially important that we think about these
issues here on the eve of our Future Careers as University Theme Park
Employees, as Eric reminds us. (Incidentally, on my recent trip to
Greenfield Village I met the new blacksmith -- who'd just taken over from
the old blacksmith, who'd retired. The new guy had served a seven-year
apprenticeship at GV so that he could become the blacksmith, and now the
only place he can work is at . . . Greenfield Village.) As Motorola
University and other corporate training grounds take over the functions
universities have typically fulfilled, what is it that we _do_ that's
unique and worth preserving? How can we carry that Thing, whatever it
is, into another century?


(And I do agree with you about ultra-personalized tracking. If
it's in the context of some wider enterprise, I think I'd have no
problem with it; then it becomes a kind of point-of-need delivery system.)

(And yeah, I'd love to have the reference for the baseball film, if
you've got it handy.)

Marcy Bauman
Writing Program
University of Michigan-Dearborn
4901 Evergreen Rd.
Dearborn, MI 48128

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