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NYT Article "The Ultimate Distance Learning"

MichelleLOyen's picture

I stumbled on this article in the NY Times "The Ultimate Distance Learning" (free registration required to view) about the establishment of University distance learning activities within the Second Life online community. This takes even a step further the possibilities for distance learning and education for today's tech-savvy students, and reinforces my opinion that there are great opportunities in online education and learning. When you see "Harvard" and "The MacArthur Foundation" being mentioned in this context of Second Life, it really encourages one to take this particular venue seriously and consider the possibilities.


Zhigang Suo's picture

Dear Michelle:

As you know, John Hutchinson and I are teaching a fracture mechanics course over a long distance now. We give lectures at Harvard to students from Harvard and MIT, and through the web to students at the University of Nebraska. Right now we have a total of 18 students. You can read about their self-introductions and why they take this course.

It took us some trouble and a lot of help from our IT people to get us wired. The essential problem is that few people are doing distance teaching, so that there is little demand. For example, the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard built such a classroom a few years ago, at a great cost, but nobody recall that it has ever been used for distance teaching. Now the equipment is outdated, and John and I cannot use it this time. The IT people told us that to convert a classroom for distance teaching, you need to spend about 100k. Even then the equipment is not ideal.

I suppose in future technology for distance learning will be perfected, so that we will feel no distance in class. Then we will be only concerned with the size of the class, long distance or short distance. For example, the largest class I have taught at Harvard had about 30 students. I could frequently ask students questions, and students could interrupt me. Many students mentioned in their feedback that they had a sense of participation in the class. I suppose that such interaction will be impossible if the class is much bigger than 30 students.

However, at Harvard, some of the classes are so popular that each class has hundreds of students. I suppose for such a class, it does not really matter if the class has 1000 or even 10000 students at a time. We could have a star teacher broadcast her lectures. Students can view the lectures at different times. When that happened, we would reconsider our job security, or perhaps find many reasons to have small classes. In fact, technology has been available for some time to broadcast lectures. Why isn't this idea catching on?

Of course, distance teach will bring some simple benefits. Some biology classes here are taken both by students at Cambridge (MA) and at Boston. The distance teaching save students some trouble to go between the two places.

It is an exciting time to be a teacher and a researcher, or be any profession specialized in knowledge.  Even a theoretician can mess around with experiments on the Internet!

Distance leaning through Second Life is intriguing. I'm curious if any iMechanicians have any experience with Second Life and the like.

I was very intrigued by the opportunities that Second-Life presents in education. It facilitates the meeting of students and professors in a virtual world without the burden of meeting in a physical location, and using the chat format as the means of communication it also allows for discussions. However, upon considering its particular use in the education of mechanics, I find a few limitations.

Precisely because the means of communications is through chat, it seems it would be difficult to write mechanics equations. This is the same trouble that we encounter in posting blogs in iMechanica. It's difficult to write equations and it usually proves very tedious to try to imitate the various types of greek letters and mathematical notations. This would make it difficult for the professor to teach and in return for the students to ask questions. It would require the entire class to be proficient in writing equations before the beginning of the course. I wonder if this Second-Life has considered facilitating this process.

On another note, I also worry about the social life of a student in the prospect of virtual education. Second-life is a great tool when one wants to have a couple of discussions with other experts in a field, or to teach a really popular class, which only ask the student for a small amount of time in front of their computer. It still allows the student to have a real life outside of the virtual world. However, using second-life for a full time course load will demand the student to meet all of his classmates and professors in a virtual world, never really requiring them to meet or know each other. It seems like a machine like world. It may ultimately be a matter of preference whether second-life catches on, but I think there will always be a demand for human relationships.

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