Here at Stockton, as at various institutions around the country, debate is simmering as to whether or not distance learning should have a prominent role in the curriculum. I'm not sure what I think about it. On the hand, the “market” wants it — the distance learning courses at Stockton fill up very quickly. It's more convenient for many students to simply log on or watch a telecourse than it is for them to get into their cars, drive to campus, go into the classroom and interact with others over a set period of time. I can think of many situations where people would in fact be unable to take courses at all if they did not have this option — it's certainly more friendly to people with certain disabilities, and certain work and family situations. On the other hand, what I've treasured most about my educational experiences has been that time in class, the exchange of ideas, the give and take of communication that entails not only language but also body language, eye contact, conflict and collaboration. There are many kinds of learning that you can't do at a distance. I also think that certain subjects are probably more conducive to distance learning than others. Subjects that are more typically “presentational” — where a set of facts needs to be ascertained, memorized, or where a series of procedures needs to be learned, would seem more conducive to distance learning. I'm not sure that literature is that kind of subject. But then, again, when I think about the electronic literature community, and what I've learned in that sort of informal “university” — most of the communication, most of the exchange, most of the learning, takes place on the Internet — in chat rooms, over email, on lists, in MOOs, etc. So the conditions are such that it is not at all unusual for people who have never met in physical space to work together on projects. Of course, that makes the annual or semiannual or occassional in person meetings richer than they otherwise might have been. When people who don't “know” each other but have had extensive textual relationships with each other do meet in person, interesting things happen.
So I don't quite know where I stand on distance learning. Certainly the idea of a college or university without meeting spaces, without human interaction, is repulsive to me. But I doubt that that kind of learning will ever become the norm. Maybe I'm pollyanaish, but I don't think that most people think of the college experience as simply fulfilling an economic prerequisite. It would be sad if that were the case. I don't think that most people who are looking for an education would prefer not to “go to college” and instead would prefer to “log on to college.” I'm interested in the middle ground however, in distance learning that serves needs that the traditional model does not, and that uses technology to bring people and ideas together that would not otherwise connect. Hopefully academe has room for both distance learning and the fully interactive “meatspace” classroom of the traditional liberal arts education.