Friday, August 11, 2006

A Cyber Class is Not For Everyone

Last weekend, I went to San Luis Obispo to take care of some personal matters and to spend time with family. I haven't been to the Central Coast since January, which was also the last time I had my hair cut! Definitely it was a much welcomed trip not just to get my hair cut and visit family but also to unwind, relax, and, more than anything, to destress from the fast pace of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Every one is so nice and friendly -- even drivers are courteous! I had forgotten how nice and slow the pace of living is in SLO, having lived there for ten years while doing my undergrad work at the California Polytechnic State University, better known as Cal Poly.

Reminiscing On My Undergraduate Years On Campus
As I drove through the Cuesta grade and entered San Luis Obispo, I saw the familiar green Cal Coly State University sign and decided to visit my Alma Mater. Campus is closed for the summer on the weekend, but I decided to walk around campus to reminisce on the campus where I had spent 5 years as an undergraduate English major. Memories flooded back to me of being in the Student Union amidst the hustle and bustle of hundreds of other students, the lines waiting for latte or an ice cream, the University Union and the large soft chairs where students would spend their class breaks reading or sleeping while others walked hurriedly to catch the next class.

As I continued on and walked the hilly streets on campus to the library, I remember the "traffic" I'd go through to make it to the other side of campus, dodging other walking students and students on bicycles. The energy on an enclosed college campus, especially one as beautiful Cal Poly's campus nestled near the foothills of SLO amidst trees and lots of greenery and foliage is simultaneously exhilerating and motivating and safe -- a jewel of a haven for which potential new students from all over the United States would like to be a part. Even though I didn't know each and every student I would walk past during my undergrad years, I felt like part of a community -- a college community -- one that is easily seen and felt not only because of the very "physical-ness" of being on campus in person, but also because we were all there for the same reason -- for a degree from a nationally ranked University.

And then of course, I couldn't miss walking back to the Recreation Center and the pool that uses bromine not chlorine, empty but serene and calm, protected by the pool covers. I remember swimming laps at 7 am every morning for an hour each time, 7 days a week, and completing triathlons. It was easy to stay in shape when I was near other students also doing the same! I remember many summer days sharing half the pool with the nationally-ranked Cal Poly Men's Water Polo Team...and the great and very bold...ahem...ahem...!!! calendars for which they are now famous for. Ah...the joys of my undergrad years!

Feeling a Part of the University Community
The very sense of community I felt at Cal Poly so easily while I was "physically" there is something that is harder to attain when you're attending cyberclasses remotely, and I want to address this issue because it's something many remote students in the M.A. in Media Studies program have felt some concern about -- some more keenly than others. It's hard to feel connected when your only physical connection is the Internet and the University Portal and the rest is on a different plane and occurs "virtually." The online medium and cyberclasses are not for those students who would prefer to be on a "physical" plane.

This issue of providing a sense of community was addressed by the Media Studies Department in the form of a 13th Street thread which was created on the University Portal. The intent is for students to virtually enter and start conversations with other students, network, etc., in order to help remote students feel more "connected" to the University and to other graduate students. The down side is doing so can become very apparent that you are indeed seeking to connect -- as though you have no real life outside of being on the Internet. This is amplified on an online medium because interactions are clear, written records. For these reasons, I rarely entered the 13th Street thread, which was originally created to emulate the "physical" location of 13th Street in NYC where on campus students would meet with other students, take a break between classes, have coffee, and generally, just network and "connect" with other students.

Staying Motivated and Connected When You're Remote
Another challenge to completing the program online is staying motivated. Because students are on their own when it comes to managing your time and studies, students who go into the graduate program and succeed are those that are highly motivated self-starters who really want the Master's degree. In an earlier post, I mentioned ways to network with other graduate students completing the M.A. in Media Studies remotely, such as finding students in your online classes who may live in your city or state and making arrangements to meet in person.

I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet 2 students in the M.A. in Media Studies program who, like me, also reside in San Francisco. It was a great experience to meet in person at a local coffee shop in the lively Haight neighborhood of San Francisco, after having known each other for some time in our virtual classes or via email exchanges. It's the same phenomenon that happens with online dating. You know the person very well, just not physically, and then meeting in person changes the entire virtual relationship and helps you feel even more connected. It's a very interesting phenomenon that has a emerged as a result of the Internet and our high-tech age. Exchanging emails on a more personal level also helps, as one would do with a friend. You get to know each other better.

It also helped me to attend the graduate orientation in NYC when I was first accepted into the program. At that time, I also stopped in the University Union to have my picture taken for my my student I.D. card -- something that helps me feel connected because its tangible. Orientation happens each September, so even if you're not a new student, I recommend attending them just to meet students and faculty in person and to help you feel connected. Consider it a nice visit to NYC and stay for a few days. It's a real eye-opener. Attending graduate student orientation, even just that one time two years ago, helped me feel connected the duration I've been in the M.A. in Media Studies program. And it was also nice to place a face with a name.

Insights From Two Online-Only Colleagues Who Have Moved to NYC to Attend Graduate Courses On Campus
I have recently been in touch with two colleagues in the program who have since moved to NYC to attend courses on campus. One moved from San Antonio, Texas, and the other moved from Georgia. We stay in touch via email and fortunately, they both remember me! I asked them both for their reflections on comparing the two experiences--both online and on campus--and they provided me with some great insights, which I will share in my next post.

Also, for the first time in the entire 2 years that I've been in the program, while taking this summer's course, The New New Media: Weblogs, Wikis, RSS & Emerging Social Media, I had two on campus students who took this online class (it also happened to be their very first online class in the entire program) mention during class how much they've struggled with the online medium. I'll share their insights as well in my next post.

Not For Everyone
I have to be honest and reflect that taking online graduate courses in the M.A. in Media Studies at The New School is not for everyone. While it is the ulimate in luxury by being able to attend a graduate class from a great University while in the comfort of your living room anywhere in the world, or anywhere you can access the Internet and even while traveling, or while in airports, it isn't easy to be such for many other reasons, such as feeling remote, removed and thus far away from the "physical-ness," and support, of the University and other students. Thus, it is also much more challenging to connect or even just to feel connected to the University and to other students in the program. And feeling remote is amplified in an online medium because of the very nature of the medium. However, for those students who appreciate the utter convenience of taking courses remotely, are good at self-motivation, have a full-time job or a family to take care of, or are students who would like to complete the M.A. in Media Studies at The New School without having to move to NYC, it is a great program and well worth some of the shortcomings of any virtual class. I considered moving to NYC when I was accepted into the program in 2004, but after I saw the high cost of living including high rent prices, I opted to stay put in San Francisco and decided I would complete the program remotely. It's not easy, but the rewards of completing the only master's degree of its kind in the world, are well worth the shortcomings.


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