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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #90      A Publication of The Nature Institute          May 14, 1999
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NETFUTURE is a reader-supported publication.
    Why I Never Buy Books from Amazon.com (Stephen L. Talbott)
       What are cheap prices the prices of?
       Mistaking the Part for the Whole (David Isenberg)
       NETFUTURE's Hubris in Defining `Human' (Graham Mainwaring)
       Obscure Holism (Joshua Yeidel)
       Leboyer on Birth without Violence (Brad McCormick)
       Lessons about Doing Distance Education Well (John McHugh)
       A Worthwhile Distance Education Course (Phil Walsh)
       Who is a Drop-out? (Graham Mainwaring)
       A Failure of the Medium or a Failure of Teachers? (Bruce A. Metcalf)
    About this newsletter
                                Stephen L. Talbott
    The popularity of web auction sites has gotten me thinking about the
    ever-increasing number of collectors' markets out there -- from baseball
    cards to old 45-rpm record jackets, from antique furniture to Pez
    dispensers, from stamps to beer bottles, from coins to teddy bears.
    One feature distinguishing a collectors' market from most other markets is
    that it's primarily a kind of futures market:  people tend to buy things
    based on anticipated future monetary value rather than any sense of
    general usefulness or intrinsic worth.  That is, they bet on how much
    others will be willing to pay for an item at some later time.
    Such a market for a particular type of product can emerge overnight for no
    other reason than that people begin to conceive it and then start bidding
    up each other's expectations.  I suppose you could say it is a market in
    expectations.  It becomes one of those many contemporary domains in which
    a kind of numbers game replaces any qualitative sense of value.  The
    context in which value is assessed extends scarcely further than my guess
    about how others will assess the value in the future.  Of course, if these
    others are like me -- if they are only putting a number on their
    expectations regarding what number others will put on their expectations
    regarding what number others... -- then no reckoning of actual value need
    ever contaminate the picture.
    There is, needless to say, something arbitrary and unrooted, something
    conducive to bubble economics -- okay, something like the current stock
    market -- in this game of mutually induced levitation.  And all that, it
    seems to me, is a useful backdrop for viewing more conventional markets
    that we do not think of as belonging to collectors.  There is more than
    one way, it turns out, to ignore actual worth in favor of a numbers game.
    Casino Economics
    Having first established itself as an online bookseller, Amazon.com is now
    rapidly adding other businesses.  First it was, naturally enough, music
    and videos.  Then gifts and pharmaceuticals.  Then pet supplies and
    auction services.  And, in venture capitalist Bill Gurley's words, "Why
    stop there?  Some people would argue that Amazon is evolving into an
    online transaction company, which could mean that it would eventually
    compete with financial institutions such as credit card companies."  More
    generally yet, why not anything and everything?
    Gurley claims that the Internet is blurring the boundaries between
       Imagine, if you will, a large body of land covered by independent
       lakes.  Think of these lakes as markets, and the species that inhabit
       each lake as competitors.  Over time, these individual ecosystems have
       evolved separately, and certain species have emerged as leaders in each
       market (lake).  Now imagine what would happen if a canal were installed
       between each and every lake, thereby enabling each fish to swim freely.
       The Internet, an electronic version of the canal, is having this effect
       on business.  Your competition is no longer limited to your lake, and
       you may find yourself face to face with a species you have never seen
       before.  (Above the Crowd, Feb. 22, 1999)
    The upshot of all this is that "everyone is a potential competitor" and
    "doing business on the Net is like playing the game of Risk with a twist
    -- a little line connects every country on the planet, and anyone can
    attack anyone."
    This, I think, is horribly true.  It is also horribly false.  The truth is
    rooted in the way we are reducing markets to formal abstractions.  Goods
    and services are viewed, in familiar atomic fashion, as discrete, self-
    contained, and neatly transportable entities without regard to context.
    This decontextualization points toward the possibility of an objective,
    well-behaved market in this atom or that, where anyone who tosses his
    atoms into the ring is playing exactly the same game as everyone else.
    Since one atom is qualitatively indistinguishable from another, we are
    again in a pure numbers game.  And in a market where there are only
    numbers and a competitive drive to come out on top, everything that would
    ground commercial activity, everything that would bind it in an orderly
    fashion to the structure and meaning of our lives, tends to disappear.  No
    wonder, then, that Brian Arthur, in his widely cited paper on "Increasing
    Returns and the New World of Business", likens the economics of the high-
    tech industry to casino gambling:
       We can imagine the top figures in high tech -- the Gateses and
       Gerstners and Groves of their industries -- as milling in a large
       casino.  Over at this table, a game is starting called multimedia.
       Over at that one, a game called Web services.  In the corner is
       electronic banking.  There are many such tables.  You sit at one.  How
       much to play? you ask.  Three billion, the croupier replies.  Who'll be
       playing?  We won't know until they show up.  What are the rules?
       Those'll emerge as the game unfolds.  What are my odds of winning?  We
       can't say.  Do you still want to play?  (Harvard Business
       Review, July/Aug., 1996)
    The game, says Arthur, "is primarily a psychological one", and it's "not
    for the timid".  The question is whether it's also not for those who care
    about society's future.
    What Do We Really Buy?
    This brings me to what is horribly false in the vision of a single, common
    reservoir of chaotic economic molecules seeking a kind of thermodynamic
    equilibrium.  While we may be trying our best to realize such a vision, it
    negates what is most important in our economic life.
    The products and services that matter are not neatly atomic, and they can
    become so only through the destruction of all context.  When I buy
    something, I am not merely paying for a discrete object, or for a single,
    precisely delimited service.  With my transaction I step into a complex
    ongoing dance, and the effect of my entry ripples through the entire
    pattern to its farthest edges as the other participants adjust to my
    Surely we realize this sort of truth in many other spheres, whether in
    ecology or complexity studies or the attack upon social problems such as
    poverty or highway congestion or violence in our schools.  There is never
    a single, isolated answer.  Why?  Because everything is related to
    everything else.  The only way to advance against such problems is to
    learn to see imaginatively, pictorially.  Otherwise, we are left with
    thousands of informational shards that make no sense.
    When I buy milk, eggs, and vegetables at the local "farm store" a mile
    down the street from my home, I am not only supporting the organic food
    movement, but also a local farm some of whose fields are adjacent to my
    home.  I support ecological diversity, a pesticide-free environment, and
    the humane treatment of animals.  I support a diverse local community -- one
    whose kids are neither cut off from nature nor from the world of adult
    work nor from each other.  I support a context in which consumers have an
    intimate awareness of their connection to the earth and the sources of
    their sustenance.  I support minimization of the long-distance hauling and
    warehousing of food, which degrades quality and places heavy demands upon
    the transportation infrastructure.  I support many forms of meaningful
    work on a comprehensible scale.  I support a community social center,
    which is one of the things a store such as this tends to become.  And, of
    course, I withhold my support from many unsavory practices I disapprove.
    My aim in reciting this litany -- which could be extended indefinitely --
    is not to tell you what choices you should make.  I am only pointing out
    some of the places where you do in fact make choices.  Furthermore, it
    needs emphasizing how greatly an economics that embraces the kind of
    issues sketched in the previous paragraph differs from the casino madness
    Brian Arthur describes.  The gambling-house atmosphere reigns only when
    the reduction to a numbers game has eradicated all the concrete values
    that might give order, context, and a degree of stability to a field of
    All Economic Competition is, in the End, Qualitative
    You can begin to see the problem when Bill Gurley says that the Internet
    makes "everyone a potential competitor".  Certainly there is truth in
    this, and there remains a degree of truth even when you subtract out the
    casino mentality.  But at the same time the statement ignores most of what
    is interesting in any economic picture.  Given the entire context that I
    buy into with my purchases of milk, eggs, and vegetables, who is in a
    position to compete in any precise and unambiguous sense with the store
    down the street?  Certainly no one else can sell me exactly the same
    complex pattern of values.  We get a pure numbers game only by ignoring
    all the context.
    This is not to say that the farm store is insulated from competition.  My
    wife and I do in fact sometimes buy those "same" products from any of
    several co-ops and whole food stores within a fifteen-mile radius.  And,
    yes, we sometimes do price comparisons.  But there can be no sudden,
    wholesale shifting of allegiance based purely on pricing -- not, at least,
    until many value judgments about what we are actually paying for have been
    considered and integrated.
    In any sound economic system competition occurs and "rational" prices
    result.  But the myriad individual judgments that coalesce into these
    prices are personal, qualitative, and unique.  It is one thing when, in
    the true wizardry of the marketplace, such qualitative judgments resolve
    themselves into reliable numbers, such as product prices.  It is quite a
    different thing when the fateful reversal occurs and we allow numbers to
    dictate our judgments.
    All this, I hope, will suggest to you why I personally choose not to buy
    books at Amazon.com.  The core issue has to do with my growing sense of
    commitment to what has been called community economics, which seems to me
    crucial for our future.  Amazon.com just doesn't fit into this commitment
    very comfortably.  Its scale of operation, its decontextualization of its
    businesses, its cultivation of a consumer and entrepreneurial mindset that
    sees economic products as isolated atomic entities whose attached numbers
    (prices) represent the only thing about them relevant to our buying
    choices -- this strikes me as unhealthy in the extreme and not worth
    "voting" for with my choices.
    You may well evaluate these issues differently from me.  That's fine.  But
    I dearly hope you will evaluate them.  Or, rather, begin to evaluate them.
    If you are like me, you may sometimes despair of getting a handle on "the
    things that count".  About the only thing I feel absolutely certain of is
    that we must make the best beginning we can of bringing our awareness of
    context and value into our economic dealings.
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    Mistaking the Part for the Whole
    Response to:  "I Wonder What My Brain is Thinking?" (NF-89)
    From:  David Isenberg (isen@isen.com)
    As a former cognitive psychologist, who began by asking, "How does that
    mass of grey bio-jello between our ears have experiences?" I applaud your
    thoughtful deconstruction of Healy's (apparent) misuse of brain-lingo.
    I'd like to point out that this is part of a larger process in which we
    identify the whole by the part, or the phenomenon by the epiphenomenon.
    For example, we say "Washington" when we mean "The U.S. Government."  And
    we say, "Kant" when we mean the ideas that Kant expressed.  Or "the
    blonde" when we mean the woman with blonde hair.  More distressingly, we
    say "Milosevic" when we sometimes mean the mostly innocent people of
    Yugoslovia.  And then we ascribe meaning to this part that does not
    pertain to the whole, which is where we go wrong, so we, "punish
    Milosovic," and we "control our brain."
    I am sure that English linguists have a word for this "name the part for
    the whole" process.  I like to be conscious of it when I do it.
    David I
    David S. Isenberg               isen@isen.com
    isen.com, inc.          http://www.isen.com/
    18 South Wickom Drive   888-isen-com (anytime)
    Westfield NJ 07090 USA  908-875-0772 (direct line) 908-654-0772 (home)
    NETFUTURE's Hubris in Defining `Human'
    Response to:  "I Wonder What My Brain is Thinking?" (NF-89)
    From:  Graham Mainwaring (graham@mhn.org)
    In NETFUTURE #89, you spend considerable time on the observation that Jane
    Healy succumbs to the currently fashionable, and admittedly somewhat
    offputting, substitution of the word "brain" where the intention is fairly
    clearly "soul" or "consciousness."  I spent some time working with a
    software development consultant who talked this way all the time ("the
    brains in this room contain all the algorithms we need"), and it was quite
    jarring at first -- particularly as the consultant's surname was actually
    Brain.  Like all strange new uses of words, you eventually get used to it
    -- but in the process, your basic perceptual framework has been changed,
    and therein lies the danger.
    However, when I think about strange new uses of words, I can't help but
    stumble over NETFUTURE's frequent use of the word "human."  I don't think
    there has been a single issue of NETFUTURE that fails to touch, at least
    in passing, on the notion that people who are engaged with their
    environment are "fully human" while the media-saturated, disconnected
    inhabitants of the computer age are, presumably, not.  But this is a new
    use of the notion of being human.  The old definition is simply that if
    you are a member of the species homo sapiens -- and a biologist would
    probably define that membership in terms of reproductive compatibility --
    then you are human; otherwise, you're not.
    To discuss the concept of being "fully human" requires one to consider
    what would be meant by being "partially human" or for that matter "not at
    all human."  NETFUTURE #89 seems to imply that if you could find a person
    who had stopped growing toward new, unprecedented achievements of
    consciousness, this person would be less than fully human.  But these
    examples are easy to find.  You are forced to conclude that NETFUTURE does
    not consider the vast majority of people to be "fully human."
    When you think about it this way, you can't help but be struck by the
    tremendous hubris involved in presuming to define what does and does not
    constitute full-fledged membership in the human family.  If you are
    willing to apply definitional gymnastics to define some people as more or
    less "human," what's to stop you from applying these same new definitions
    in much more dangerous contexts?  If you accept that some people are fully
    human while others are not, shouldn't you ration food to the full humans
    first, in the event of shortages?  If it's always wrong to kill a human,
    is it only partially wrong to kill a partial human? Should voting be
    restricted to full humans?
    Clearly these are extreme examples, but as we've seen, the choice of words
    and the definitions applied to those words have a way of shaping our
    thinking about the topics discussed using those words.  The divisiveness
    and ethical problems with "fully human" strike me as quite dangerous.
    Given that one of the basic themes throughout NETFUTURE is the
    identification and conscious consideration of these unstated assumptions
    that permeate our use of language, it seems to me that NETFUTURE should be
    a little more careful with its own words.
    Graham --
    It is true that I do not find the "vast majority of people to be `fully
    human'".  In fact, I don't find any of us to be fully human,
    because it is in the nature of the human being to be growing toward
    future, yet-unrealized potentials.  But I don't follow you in the thought
    that any attempt at all to characterize the human being -- such as the
    statement I just made about it being in our nature to grow -- sets the
    stage for some sort of dehumanization.  That's just not there unless you
    stick it there.  You should first ask me whether I hold that people who
    don't grow (if in fact I believed there could be such people) deserved
    maltreatment or instead deserved an especially gracious treatment.
    All the things you suggest I might conclude about human beings who haven't
    yet fully arrived just don't happen to be things I do conclude about them
    -- "them" being, as far as I'm concerned, all of us.  In general, the
    historical mis-use of attempts to grasp the nature of something (or
    someone) hardly justifies giving up these attempts.  I might even suggest
    that making these attempts is part of what it means to be human!  We are,
    among many other things, the species that asks questions and tries to
    answer them -- a much more profound and less dangerous characterization,
    incidentally, than your biologist's vacuous assertion that humans are
    animals who mate with humans.
    Obscure Holism
    Response to:  "Notes on Health and Medicine" (NF-88)
    From:  Joshua Yeidel (yeidel@wsu.edu)
    I read and I appreciate your recent article on health and medicine.  I
    like your general point about "science" of medical holism and the holes in
    medical "science".  But I simply do not understand this paragraph.
       "Multiple factors", Goldberg writes, "contribute to the emergence of an
       illness and multiple modalities must work together to produce
       healing." But simply multiplying the "factors" you are dealing with is
       not enough, if you continue to conceive each factor in the old way as
       an isolatable, cause-and-effect mechanism.  A whole does not exist as a
       collection of interacting mechanisms, however numerous, and however
       complex their interactions; a whole can only arise as expression
       -- as an interior laying hold of an exterior and raising it to an
       expressive unity.
    I was able to pick up the thread of the article immediately thereafter.
    I would not impose on you by asking for a personal exegesis of these
    statements;   but I thought you would want to know that at least one
    reader of about 30 NETFUTURES got lost at that point.
    -- Joshua
    Joshua --
    You are kind to make such gentle inquiry about an indigestible chunk of
    text -- a chunk I at least half-intentionally dropped into that essay,
    knowing I had not adequately explained it!
    The problem is that the question of wholeness is one we as a culture
    abandoned several centuries ago in our pursuit of the crisp, sharp-edged,
    mutually exclusive products of our analytically inclined minds.  So it's
    almost impossible to say anything about wholeness today without abandoning
    all normal ways of thinking.  And that requires just the sort of lengthy
    excursion I chose to avoid.  Of course, the difficulty is only made worse
    by the fact that I myself am still struggling toward an adequate
    conception of wholeness.
    For what it's worth, the best treatment of the idea of wholeness I know to
    recommend is contained in a book I've mentioned a couple of times before:
    Henri Bortoft's The Wholeness of Nature.  But I shouldn't entirely
    ignore your request, so here's a slightly extended paraphrase of that
    puzzling paragraph:
    Just multiplying the number of objects does not bring us wholeness if we
    continue to view these objects in the old, analytic fashion.  Nor does
    wholeness come when we make these objects interact with each other
    mechanistically, as in feedback mechanisms, neural networks, and all the
    rest.  All we get when we aggregate material objects (and abstractions
    conceived in the manner of material objects) is a collection of objects
    side by side, acting upon each other externally.
    Wholeness can only come from what is immaterial and capable of expression
    -- for example, from the idea that gives unity and wholeness to the words
    in a sentence, the self that gives unity and wholeness to the human
    organism, the living being of the plant that gives unity and wholeness to
    the plant's various manifestations.  A painting can be a whole because
    every part interpenetrates and "colors" every other part -- something that
    can happen only because there is an immaterial expression, a meaning and
    feeling, that draws the otherwise totally unrelated "pixels" up into a
    It is in their qualitative dimensions that things can interpenetrate each
    other in the manner of wholes, and that is why the kind of science that
    chooses to ignore qualities in favor of quantities finds itself shut off
    from any approach to wholes.
    It's become routine today to speak about wholes that are more than the sum
    of their parts.  But this is almost never what people really mean.  If
    they did, then they would grant that when you have removed all the parts
    there would still be the "something more" left over, namely, the invisible
    whole.  (I owe this last remark to an informal comment by the physicist,
    Arthur Zajonc, author of Catching the Light, which, in a less direct way,
    is another useful book to read if you are on the trail of wholes.)  But
    they are almost never willing to grant this.  Moreover, a whole that is
    more than the sum of its parts must also precede its parts, for it is the
    whole that, in expressing itself through the parts, raises them into a
    All right, so now I have only multiplied my sins!  But you can be assured
    that the issue of holism will arise again and again in this newsletter.
    Leboyer on Birth without Violence
    Response to:  "Notes on Health and Medicine" (NF-88)
    From:  Brad McCormick (bradmcc@cloud9.net)
    > If you want to explore the anti-human tendencies of the technological
    > mindset, there is no better place to start than with the modern history
    > of the mechanization of childbirth.  Some day we will look back at the
    > barbaric (if antiseptic) practices of the twentieth century much as we
    > now look back at bloodletting and the application of leeches.  Of course
    > under the strengthening influence of women themselves, hospital
    > practices have been changing for the better in recent years.  But it is
    > well to remember how difficult the reform has been, and how resistant
    > the high priesthood of medicine.
    Just in case you don't know it, a classic statement of the problem here
    is:  Birth Without Violence, by Frederick Leboyer, Alfred Knopf, 1984.
    Donald Winnicott is another person with a lot of good stuff to say
    about such things.
    Just a footnote....
    \brad mccormick
    Brad McCormick, Ed.D. / bradmcc@cloud9.net
    914.238.0788 / 27 Poillon Rd, Chappaqua, NY 10514-3403 USA
     Visit my website: http://www.cloud9.net/~bradmcc/
    Lessons about Doing Distance Education Well
    Response to:  "How Compelling is Distance Education?" (NF-88)
    From:  John McHugh (mchugh@cs.pdx.edu)
    As both a practitioner of distance education and a skeptic concerning its
    desirability and effectiveness, I was interested in your comments in
    NETFUTURE #88.  Although I may be shooting from the hip in replying before
    reviewing the study you cite, I think that some of my experiences may be
    relevant.  In the early 1980s, the state of North Carolina constructed a
    two way video network to support distance education in terms of sharing
    courses among its major universities.  The original network linked Duke,
    North Carolina State, University of North Carolina, and several facilities
    in the Research Triangle Park.  It was later extended to include other
    institutions in Wilmington, Greenville, Greensboro, Charlotte, Asheville,
    and Cullowhee.  Each institution has at least one video classroom and a
    video conference room.  Two way video (broadcast quality NTSC, for what it
    is worth) is supplied along with full duplex (always live, no "push to
    talk") audio.
    I taught over the system with classes originating both from Duke and UNC.
    I had remote classes at Charlotte and at Duke and occasional students in
    the RTP and in Greensboro.  I also used the facilities to hold team
    meetings for projects that I supervised and to "attend" lectures and
    seminars at other institutions in the system.  My observations are based
    on several years of teaching lecture courses in databases and software
    engineering.  Dropout rates were not a problem and appeared to be similar
    to those experienced for regular courses.  The fact that no instructor was
    available to teach the course at the remote site is probably a factor.
    As an instructor, the ability to have visibility into the remote classroom
    seems to be key, but leaves something to be desired.  A long view of the
    classroom shows the students as "stick figures" and makes it difficult to
    see facial expressions (my favorite form of feedback).  When students
    asked questions, the operators zoomed in on them so that their face could
    be seen, but this seems to intimidate many students.
    The full duplex audio is absolutely crucial if anything resembling the
    normal give and take among the students and instructor is to occur.  By
    the time a student reaches for a microphone and pushes a button, the
    moment has passed and much is lost.
    The North Carolina system is one of the better ones that I have seen, but
    it is not as good as face to face meetings with students.  There is
    typically a much lower level of interaction with remote students than with
    local ones.  All in all, the NC system is acceptable, but far from an
    ideal educational environment.  I believe that improved technology can
    help, but cannot solve all the problems.  It is very difficult to keep the
    remote students from feeling that they are second or third class citizens
    and it takes additional effort by faculty, students (local and remote),
    and administrators to make the system work well.
    Oregon, where I am now, always tries to do things on the cheap.  The
    distance learning setups that I have used in Portland have no reverse
    video, rely on push to talk microphones at most locations and are
    generally unsatisfactory.  The outbound video uses microwave broadcast and
    is often subject to fading in the rain.  The university also uses low
    frame rate satellite links and is experimenting with MPEG and other
    compressed forms for internet video.  As someone who depends partially on
    lip cues for understanding speech, I am skeptical of these, but have not
    tried them.
    I have taught several courses with distant (suburban) sections in Oregon
    and can count on the fingers of one hand the number of occasions in which
    remote students have actively participated in the class.  The audio setup
    ensures that I will not hear restlessness or other room noises that might
    give me some feedback.  I cannot see puzzled expressions.  I am unhappy
    with the lack of feedback and have had a higher than normal drop rate with
    some students electing to drive to the originating location rather than
    suffer the video course.
    Somewhere between the North Carolina and Oregon implementations lies a
    threshold of acceptability.  Above this threshold, it may be possible to
    add technology to raise the quality of the educational experience, but
    this requires money.  Unfortunately, many administrators look at distance
    education as a way to cut costs and reach more students.  My guess is that
    the cost per filled seat is substantially higher for good quality remote
    delivery than for face to face classes.  Even poor systems such as the
    ones Oregon runs are expensive and the pressure to save money creates a
    downward spiral towards systems that will be judged as complete failures
    by all except the budgeters.
    As someone who is, frankly, fascinated by some of the technological
    possibilities for facilitating both distance collaboration and learning, I
    would welcome the opportunity to build better facilities to support this
    and to subject them to a rigorous evaluation.  We seem to be forced in the
    direction of more distance learning and less face to face interaction and
    we ought to try to find out how close to a first class experience we can
    come and at what cost.
    John McHugh
    Tektronix Professor
    Computer Science Department
    Portland State University
    A Worthwhile Distance Education Course
    Response to:  "How Compelling is Distance Education?" (NF-88)
    From:  Phil Walsh (philw@microware.com)
    Just read the "Distance Learning" piece in the most recent NETFUTURE.
    Here's some anecdotal data: my personal experience with distance learning
    was surprisingly effective.
    I took a graduate level course over a two-way fiber optic network.  Myself
    and a dozen other people sat in a room in a local high school.  There was
    a camera mounted high-up in the corner of the room, and microphones on the
    table in front of each of us. At the front of the room was a large
    television monitor.
    At the other end of the wire was a classroom at Iowa State University.
    That classroom held a dozen-and-a-half graduate students and a professor.
    There was a camera pointed at the instructor supplying the video feed for
    the monitor at the front of our classroom; he had a monitor in front of
    him through which he watched the video feed coming from the classroom here
    in Des Moines.
    I was skeptical of the arrangement going into it, but it actually worked
    fine.  Our microphones were always live, which made interjecting,
    questioning, commenting, etc. feel fairly natural.  (The one thing that
    always felt odd was not being able to see the students in the other
    I think the fact that everyone was in a live classroom setting was a key
    factor in making the thing work.  Had the professor been standing in an
    empty room with only a video camera in it, or had I been sitting by myself
    in a room watching video coming from a fully populated classroom at the
    other end, I think the "feel" of the thing would have been quite
    different.  But as it was it worked fine, and didn't differ dramatically
    from a typical classroom setting (which, I would be the first to admit,
    isn't necessarily the ideal learning environment ... ).  In the end, I
    benefited from the course, and I would not have been able to take it had
    they not been doing it from a high school 5 minutes from my house.
    Just my random thoughts on a snowy Friday morning in Iowa.
    Who is a Drop-out?
    Response to:  "How Compelling is Distance Education?" (NF-88)
    From:  Graham Mainwaring (graham@mhn.org)
    I would like to make some observations about your recent article on
    distance learning.  I am currently a distance learning student of Heriot-
    Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, even though I live in Raleigh,
    North Carolina.  Various of my fellow HW distance learning students
    occasionally comment on the pass rate, which is not published by HW but
    which has been estimated at 15%.  The problem is, we're not sure what this
    number means. Like you've been saying, without context, there's no
    meaning.  We suspect that this number represents the total HW distance
    learning MBAs awarded, divided by the total number of people who have
    started the program.  But if the program has existed for ten years, and
    the average person takes five to complete, with substantial growth in
    enrollment in the recent past, then having already graduated 15% of the
    total enrollment is an excellent achievement.
    The difficulty in measuring drop-out rates from distance learning programs
    is that the question of having dropped out becomes very subjective.  In a
    traditional classroom environment, if you cease to attend classes, take
    exams, or participate in the process, you have dropped out.  You can't
    dispute the classification.  In a distance-learning situation, you might
    not have actually worked on your courses for several months, yet in your
    own mind you have not dropped out: You still plan to pick it up and finish
    it, one of these days.  How long does this situation last before you are a
    One aspect of HW's program that I think helps people complete the work is
    that HW conducts distance learning exam 'diets' once every six months, in
    June and December.  Unlike many distance learning programs, you don't
    simply take an exam when you feel you're ready. HW requires you to
    register for the exams quite early, and if you miss the deadline, they are
    completely inflexible:  You can register again in six months.  You can
    choose not to take an exam at the last minute, without academic penalty,
    but if you do so you will again have to wait six months for your next
    opportunity.  This setup maintains most of the flexibility of a
    traditional DL program, but injects fixed deadlines and milestones so that
    students remain acutely aware of the number of weeks left until the exam
    -- just like in a regular classroom.  So people tend to stop
    procrastinating and actually do the work.
    I have currently passed two courses of the nine necessary for my MBA, so
    I'm not in a position to comment on the program as a whole, but what I've
    done so far seems to go a long way to addressing many of the objections of
    typical DL students.  Perhaps you or your correspondents should look into
    Heriot-Watt as an example of how to do DL well.
    A Failure of the Medium or a Failure of Teachers?
    Response to:  "How Compelling is Distance Education?" (NF-88)
    From:  Bruce A. Metcalf (bmetcalf@magicnet.net)
    I'm not at all certain that what we're seeing here is a failure of the
    medium.  As a retired college professor, it would be only natural of me to
    assume that it were and that my colleagues were innocent of offense, but
    it is my experience that the exact opposite is true.
    A few years ago, I enrolled in a "distance learning" program -- an ALA
    accredited Master of Library Science program (at a state university which
    shall here remain nameless) that sadly touched but lightly on electronic
    media in it's curriculum.  I dropped out of the program shortly after the
    start of the second semester when I found my second set of instructors to
    be every bit as poor at distance education as the first.
    Note please that I am not calling the faculty of that school incompetent
    or "lousy teachers," yet lousy teaching was surely the result and the
    cause of my departure.  What made this program so exquisitely execrable
    was not the technology (which itself was unworthy of the task being asked
    of it) but the complete failure of anyone to instruct the instructors in
    the nature of the media and how to make it work.
    The technology of conventional teaching is not in itself very difficult,
    no matter the subject.  My father, a veteran of 31 years in the trenches
    (Los Angeles City Schools) has opined that all a teacher *really* needs is
    a stick with which to draw in the dirt, and that good teachers could do it
    without the stick.  Even the most primitive form of uninterrupted lecture,
    however, is given in the presence of the students, and they respond -- if
    only through body language -- in such a way as to provide corrective
    feedback to the lecturer.  In the case of my distance learning program,
    this feedback was inhibited in two ways:
    First, the program was being presented to students on nine campuses,
    including a group in the physical location of the instructors.  Visual
    feedback from the off-site students was limited to a single monitor which
    switched periodically from one group to another.  Audible feedback was
    constrained to the local class and the single off-site student who pressed
    the "talk" button first.  While I can't speak to the results at the other
    sites, this led my off-site group into a variety of on- and off-topic
    conversations, some quite extended, and none providing any constructive
    feedback to the instructor due to the limits of the available technology.
    Oh, you say that sounds like a technology problem, and not a teaching
    problem?  I disagree.  It's my job as an instructor to deal with
    distractions in the classroom, and to turn such discussions off, around,
    or into fodder for the class.  An instructor who does not do so -- despite
    the technical difficulties -- is doing a poor job.
    Other problems were more mundane, but no less damaging to the
    instructional effort.  Several instructors had no knowledge of how to use
    microphones properly, such that they could not be heard at remote sites
    and would not correct the problem before continuing.  Many graphics could
    not be transmitted to remote sites, could not be seen by the on-site
    students, or both.  Handouts were given to on-site students that were
    unavailable to off-site students.  Library references were put on reserve
    only at the on-site library, with off-site students left to fend for
    themselves and compete with each other.  I consider all of these to be
    examples of lousy teaching.
    For those who haven't experienced such problems first-hand, I have a
    suggestion.  Find a videotape of a technical presentation that you
    attended in person.  When viewing it, you will likely garner the opinion
    that the presenter was ill-organized, spoke poorly, had ineffectual
    graphics, and used their time poorly -- yet you recall none of these flaws
    from your "live" experience.  I certainly remember the first of my
    lectures that was taped -- scared me half out of my chosen profession!
    What's the difference?  Expectations.  Most of us have grown up with
    television, or at least films, and we expect things shown on both the
    large and the small screen to have a certain level of polish.  We expect
    to be able to hear the speakers, read the graphics, and enjoy a certain
    minimum level of production values.  All of which we have learned
    not to expect of "live" presentations.  Neither set of expectations
    is necessarily right or wrong, but they color our impression of both
    learning modes.  The poorly produced video will detract from it's own
    credibility; and the speaker with a clear voice, clear graphics, and some
    sense of showmanship will seem more authoritative.
    While I won't call myself an expert showman, I do prepare for televised
    presentations quite differently from the way I prepare for live classes --
    because it is *necessary* in order for my teaching to have the desired
    effect on my students!  If I should fail to do so, I would charge myself
    with "lousy teaching," and it is with that insult I charge my instructors
    from that distance-learning program.
    It's nice to blame the machines for our own failures, yet it was -- it
    must have been -- our human choice to employ those machines and systems, and
    it must be our fault if we use them ill.
    Is distance education different?  Yes it is; and it's the responsibility
    of the instructor to take that difference into account the same way one
    takes into account students' numbers, language skills, disabilities,
    biases, disinformation, and attitude problems.
    Nobody every said teaching was easy, and we're fools to think that
    distance education wouldn't be harder yet.  Neither would I be justified
    in saying the technology couldn't be improved in many ways to aid such
    teachers.  But distance educators need to understand and accept the
    challenges presented by whatever medium they're using at any given point
    in it's development and select and deal with them professionally and
    Else they will be justly branded "lousy teachers."
    Bruce A. Metcalf
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