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Volume 72, Issue 17, Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Opinion

Welcome to the future of learning

Michael Gotez
Opinion Columnist 

"Greetings, Class 004958, I will be your instructor for this semester. My name is Professor Hotnjuicy75. Please ensure that all instant messengers and chat channels are closed during the lecture."

Welcome to the college classroom of the future. Every day virtual education becomes increasingly sophisticated. From a bulletin board system to live, streaming podcasts, the way students learn has changed drastically in just a 10-year span.

Early models of "distance education" were so much of a hassle that many students would only take those courses at a last resort. Oftentimes, the student was required to set up a secured virtual connection to the campus to log on to a text-based terminal to download assignments and ask questions. Professors would try to comment quickly, though it often took days for a reply.

Today we have similar models with much better execution. Active feedback sessions with live chat rooms and easily accessible classroom portals are the norm. We have moved from the static age of online communication to the active age where we expect to have instantaneous feedback.

Second Life, a virtual environment where many people can act out real situations, is one of the latest online communities that have grown out of the chat rooms of old. It provides a 3-D representation of each user in a social environment. Now this community is moving into the educational world.

A Harvard class will be taught entirely online using the Second Life world as a classroom. The professor will have a character and each student will be present sitting in his or her virtual seats. Or will they?

Even in classrooms with live human beings, students are not always "present." This new method of teaching may not change anything, and it will provide more of an opportunity to tune out the speaker. What better way to not pay attention than to ALT-TAB over to your Web browser and surf the Web while your professor drones.

This is where virtual interfaces fail us as a tool. The human presence is a precious thing that does not always need to be blotted out. So many subtle meanings can be conveyed through body movements and facial expressions. These nonverbal messages will always be lost in a virtual world.

We have many reasons to push forward with new forms of distance education. Disabled students would have a much easier time moving from one class to another if they didn't have to physically move. People who live far from universities would not have to travel far from home to take classes. All the benefits of an education without having to talk to anyone is perfect. Who needs that whole community feel or interpersonal relations skill set, anyway? 

Taking away personal contact creates a sterile feel to something that should be enriching one's mind and soul.

Goetz, a broadcast journalism senior, 
can be reached at mpgoetz@gmail.com

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