Getting Connected with Connect Ed

By Ira Nayman

Sequence: Volume 32, Number 3


Release Date: May/June 1997

I recently finished the course work for my Masters Degree, and am currently
awaiting final judgment of my thesis. Throughout this experience, I never
physically attended a class. I never met any of my professors, and wouldn't
know what they look like if some of them didn't have portraits accompanying
the books and magazine articles they have published. I met only one of my
fellow students (a happy geographic accident that we lived in the same
city), and wouldn't know the others if I passed them on the street.

And I got great marks, thank you.

The graduate degree was offered by Connected Education through the New
School for Social Research. Created by Paul Levinson, Connect Ed began
offering courses in 1985. Since then, more than 2,000 students have taken
at least one course through the New York-based computer network. My degree
program was conducted completely online.

How does a typical class work? The professor periodically downloads notes
to a course conference, which can then be read by registered students. Each
student can respond to the professor's notes, and then each others' notes.
The professor in effect becomes a moderator of the ensuing discussion,
keeping it on topic when it threatens to stray too far and injecting notes
on additional subjects to keep the ball rolling and to ensure that the
subject is properly covered. Some readings are assigned from a library of
papers on the school's computer; some are downloaded by the professor; and
some can be found at your local bookstore (although Connect Ed does offer
an ordering program for all assigned books). Grades are based on written
work (essays and other assignments), as well as participation in the
ongoing class discussion.

Connect Ed also offers a Cafe, where students and faculty can exchange
social pleasantries, an area for Brags (pretty self-explanatory, that one)
and other areas which may interest students from time to time (for
instance, many of us felt the conference on places to sell fiction was very
helpful).

There are some obvious reasons for taking a degree over the computer. One
was that I have a lot of friends and family in Toronto, and I didn't want
to move to the United States to further my education. Another was that I
couldn't afford the cost of living in the U.S., on top of the tuition I had
to pay (one year of graduate courses at a typical American institution
costs more than four years of undergraduate courses in Canada).

But there are other, less obvious advantages to an online degree. Typical
in-person classes allow for little input from most students; even when they
aren't so large that class discussion is impossible, you're limited by how
much time is allotted to the class. Online, however, a student can write a
note of any length, ensuring that his or her argument is properly stated.
In addition, every student can submit as many notes as they feel their
ideas require. There are no limits on discussion.

Another advantage is that class discussions over computer networks leave a
record, unlike verbal discussions (every student knows what it's like
trying to decipher his or her class notes after a particularly heated
debate). If you want to refute a previous point or refer to an early
lecture in an essay, they are immediately accessible.

The question I am most commonly asked by people when they first hear that I
took a degree by computer, one that suggests some strange social pathology
is at work, is, "Isn't it easy to cheat?" I don't think so. For one thing,
discerning cheating on essays for online classes is no different than for
in-person classes: the professor must use his or her knowledge of the
subject and judgment to determine if a work is original. For another thing,
many of the courses teach computer skills (two I took, for instance, were
about how to search through large databases for information and online
journalism) - and why pay for a course if somebody else is going to acquire
the skills taught in it?

Ultimately, the class participation element of the courses makes cheating
difficult. An example: for a course in Artificial Intelligence, each
student was assigned a role (prosecutor, defense attorney, witness) in the
trial of a human being accused of "murdering" a robot. (You may recall the
story: it was based on an episode of The Twilight Zone.) The first month
and a half of the course was spent discussing theories of intelligence and
preparing for the last two weeks, during which the trial was conducted. The
assignment was unusual enough that you couldn't buy a ready-made version
(as you can with some essays) or even crib notes (as you can with most
examinations). And the amount of work involved (as the prosecutor, my
closing statement alone ran to 10 single-spaced pages) makes it unlikely
that anybody would pay to get somebody else to do it for them.

Besides, it was a lot of fun, so I can't imagine why anybody would not want
to do it if given the chance.

The other question I'm usually asked - oh, look, I lost the case, okay? I
had a lot of strong theoretical arguments for why the robot should have
been considered a human being, but, in the end, the two jurors decided it
didn't constitute proof that a murder had occurred. (I later found out that
the prosecution never wins the case because of the theoretical nature of
the issues involved - small consolation that the role is often assigned to
the best students.) Well, as I was saying, the other question I'm usually
asked is "Don't you find going to school over the computer too impersonal?"
I've heard this one so often, it's hard for me not to respond (with
appropriate incredulity), "Have you ever been in a class with 300 other
people?"

However, I'm too polite.

How should I respond? One of my classmates, Rory, originally from Ireland
although he currently teaches English as a second language in Japan, has
given us a couple of wonderful descriptions of his home in that country.
Tzipporah was one of two professors for one of the most engaging and
emotionally affecting courses I have ever taken, even though she is blind
and needs a wheelchair to get around. And Molly, well, Molly is a
professional Web designer who has promised to help me get over some
problems with Windows 95.

I met a lot of really interesting people and made a few friends through my
courses, even though I have only ever physically met one other student. So,
no, I can honestly say I don't find it impersonal. In a way, it makes sense
to be studying media and communications over computer networks, since
computers are revolutionizing the way we communicate.

The virtual environment embodied by the Internet is one of the only
frontiers of exploration left open to us, and it is one which can
potentially expand infinitely, limited only by storage space and the human
imagination. Being part of the online education community has given me a
sense of pioneering in a new area of human experience and how many students
can say that about their education?

Ira Nayman writes non-fiction for such journals as Creative Screenwriting
and Reel Independence and has been awarded a Max Stern Fellowship to get
his PhD in Communications at McGill University. [email protected]




Take me to the index