New School: My Head-first Dive Into Online Courses

The class site is live, the discussion forums are active and the first video lectures have been posted. It’s official– I am participating in my very first online course here at UCLA. While I am an English undergrad, my digital humanities interests (and let’s face it–lingering GE requirements) have led me to enroll in Geography 7, Michael Shin’s Introduction to GIS.

     The class and course content will be entirely online and is going to be released weekly upon our completion of weekly quizzes and assignments. For those of you familiar with the UC quarter system, I’m currently in that awkward limbo of Zero Week and have only experienced the administrative aspects of the course. Culture shock, however, is already manifesting itself. In place of the routine, first-day-of-class shpiel on plagiarism and academic integrity, we were asked to familiarize ourselves with selected pages of plagiarism.org and to complete a handful of quizzes, including a basic “Google Challege” that required us to google basic trivia. If my tone already seems a bit wary, let me offer full disclosure: my bias tends to be against online courses. I’m no luddite, but I do fear the effort that will go into proving I did basic work (reading the syllabus, understanding basic policies, and so on)– all things usually evident in in-person interaction– will detract from course materials by way of busy work. I look forward to having my mind changed and have no doubt that the course has been compiled with care and anticipated these issues; but perhaps my wariness is born of a larger concern–that towards what will be lost in moving away from public academic spaces (traditionally, a classroom or lecture space) to online environments.

     The course site seems to anticipate these worries by extolling greater inter-student engagement and the online platform’s on-demand and portable qualities; however, no matter how well planned and interactive an interface the course maintains, I feel we are sacrificing those ineffable qualities of human interaction. Spontenaity and small talk– all such manners fall by the wayside in the intensely work/assignment driven environment I imagine online courses create. As a relentless multitasker, I’ll be the first to celebrate being able to carry a professor’s lecture in one’s cell phone, but, stepping back, I must ask: is this flexibility true freedom, or simply a means of inculcating students with the “work everywhere” philosophy of the modern workforce? Does anyone really think we’ll be taking online classes in clean white rooms (with bunches of green grapes conveniently at hand, of course), as stock images of “online classes” would have us think?

      Regardless of course quality, the collapse of public “School Space” and private “Work Space” (i.e. my personal computer) into a single plane is going to take some getting used to. As I downloaded my syllabus onto my computer from the course website–hyper aware of the fact that I wouldn’t have it reiterated to me in a classroom amongst my peers–the process felt stragely isolative. “This is it?,” I thought to myself, struggling to approach the document the same attention and interest as if it had been handed to me in a classroom. I’m probably being melodramatic, but the blurred divide is one the modern student will have to increasingly cope with.

     It’s been happening for a while now. Our computers–our digital homes, furnished with individually chosen softwares, bookmarks and wallpapers –are increasingly becoming digital neighbourhoods, plastered with billboard-esque ads, collaborative work-spaces and sites for banking and shopping. The “Work self” and “Home self,” have been increasingly mixed with internet-enabled mobiles. Bridging these separate work/home identities earlier on– mixing “School” and “Home”–seems less straightforward.

     Of course, these are all preliminary thoughts. Throughout the quarter, I hope to post more here about my own thoughts on the class, and with time, the impressions of my classmates. The course does uniquely offers students the option of completing their “Discussion” requirement online, or in an on-campus classroom, the latter of which I’ll be taking advantage of. 

     All in all, I’m looking forward to what’s to come.

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