Virtual Learning - The real story

written in Tampere, Finland
at an international conference
on virtual learning and collaboration
in summer 2002
by Gene O. Stimpson, Ph.D.

Day One

The group meets in a room in a town in a country, in reality, in person. People have faces, voices, reactions, personalities which they can show and read and share. As well as coffee and experiences. People are happy. The group leader introduces them to technology. Happiness turns into anxiety, smiles into hysterical laughter, mouse clicks to cover nervous coughs. Hardware o.k., at least most of it and so is software, from time to time. "Can you hear me." "Sure, you're sitting next to me." "I mean over the headset?" "…over the headset?" Delays echo, answers are nodded accompanied by a couple of yeses. "Your mike is too loud" "I can draw on the common white board" "Who likes to chat with me?" Coffee break. It works, at least most of it, well, some does.
Clicks and nods, fun, virtual learning might work, in reality. The cheap headset is uncomfortable, my thoughts wander back to 1982. Los Angeles. The first internet café in the world. We used to meet once a month, software and hardware developers of the valleys. Improvements on soundboards were the major topic at the time. We had cool beers, all kind of snacks, tec talk and fun, all night long. We met people and made friends. Then New York, the second internet café in the world opened. That night in Los Angeles, ten guys sat at the bar at the terminals and hacked in messages to people in New York. People they could neither hear nor see, but they communicated. About forty or fifty more guys stood around and watched. Nobody talked. Sentences races from West Coast to East Coast and back. The party was over. We no longer gathered to talk. From now on we chatted. Virtually. Every time.
Eleven years later. Noisy headphones call me back to reality. We'll meet again next week, virtually. Every one from home. At ten thirty.

Day Two

The group leader is there, right there in my computer, in my room, in my house. His voice is loud and clear in my headset, his face on my monitor. He is talking to Fred, I guess. I want the mike, don't get it yet. Then "Hello I'm in, can you hear me?" "Yes, we can." "Good." Half the group is there, virtually. Where's the other half? Really?

I hear my leader, virtually:"…so when you ask for the mike, you'll get it. Eventually. And when you've got it, nobody can take it from you until you pass it on." - "Are you there?" - Chat platform: are U there? - White board: YOU GOT THE MIKE, SPEAK NOW!!! - Chat: I can hear U breathing, speak!!!! - The phone rings in the background. "Now? I can speak now? How do I know? The button? The button! O.K." - Gone.
I got the mike: "We all heard you breathing. When the symbol shows that you've got the mike you must speak or pass it on. You pass it on with the same button with which you asked for it in the first place. That's exactly what you did. You passed it on by mistake because you hadn't noticed that you had it… Anyone out there?" "Sorry, I was out. The system gave me a time out error. I had to re-enter the room. Virtually." - "So did I." - "So there is a time limit. How do you change it?" - What time limit?"

My coffee is cold, the palms of my hands are hot and sticky. My webcam shows great pictures, but only to me. I can see some others. Some I can hear now. Talking. Or breathing. Still half the group is not there, virtually. In real life, they are queuing in a telephone line to get help from our leader. Over the phone. - I remember the man who built the first phone. Who did he call? -
Some are in, some are inner. My monitor turns white, I'm out. Am I out or is everyone out? The phone, the answer. "The server is down. Hear and see you again, when and if."

Day Three

Cogito ergo sum. Life used to be so easy. No passwords to remember. Try another one. You've got one more try. Please, change your password and confirm it. And how about remembering it? Am I?
I can't look it up. Minutes later and half a liter of perspiration spilled I got the password right. So, am I? The server is still down, it seems. I don't know whether it is the server or is it my computer? What is the subject we should have been working on anyhow? Who do you ask if you don't get in? Do you exist when you can't get in? I think I am, but that is virtual reality. Am I only because I think I am? Even if I can't get my password right?