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Inspired by Stephen Downes (E-Learning Generations)

I dropped out of college in the spring of 1991, just two years in to my undergraduate degree. My reasons were severalfold: I hated Johns Hopkins. I hated Baltimore. I was in love, and soon after dropping out, I was pregnant. Those are all stories for another day.

Shortly after the birth of my son, I realized that I had to go back to school and finish my degree. It was a realization that came, in part, from my utter boredom being at home with a baby. I read a lot of library books, sure, but I missed intellectual engagement with other adults. I'd say that was the impetus for my returning to college -- that, along with the recognition that as a young mom I'd "need" a degree more than ever in order to be considerate "legitimate." That and -- Johns Hopkins aside -- I'd always really liked school.

But after leaving Baltimore and after having a baby, I had returned to Casper, Wyoming -- my hometown and where my parents lived at the time. Wyoming only has one 4-year university, in Laramie -- a 3.5 hour drive away. With or without a baby, commuting really wasn't an option. However, the local community college in Casper offered a Bachelor's Degree through its extension service. It meant compromising on the degree I'd get as there were only a handful offered. As I'd been an International Relations and then a History major at Johns Hopkins, I had more credits towards a BS in Social Sciences than anything else. So that's what I figured I'd work towards.

It's not a particularly noble or intellectually inquisitive motivation for choosing a major, but there you go.

One of the problems with pursuing a degree through a local community college's extension service was that my options for onsite classes were severely limited. But it was also an incredible opportunity too as the program recognized that and encouraged me to find courses available elsewhere in order to fulfill my graduation requirements -- via "distance learning" (which at the time meant mostly correspondence courses or conference calls).

It was actually quite wonderful as the mom of a newborn, stuck in the middle of nowhere, motivated to finish her degree, that I could piece together a schedule that worked for me, particularly with classes that were offered asynchronously. I could weigh whether or not I wanted to take certain classes face-to-face or not.

As such, I purposefully took Intro to Statistics as a correspondence course. I'd heard that the local community college instructor wasn't so great, and so I signed up for a class through Colorado State University. I received in the mail a huge box of 20 videotapes, containing all the course lectures. That, along with the textbook, was all I had to help me through the various homework exercises and tests required. There was no opportunity or avenue for me to ask the professor questions. If I was confused -- and often I was -- the best I could do was rewind and replay the video in question. Over and over and over until things finally made sense (which was rarely) or until I opted to just haphazard a guess on the homework.

At the time, I was glad to have taken the class this way. Lectures on videotapes seemed preferable to lectures live. I could move through the content at my own pace. I didn't have to worry about the baby.

But I struggled with the class, and it was the only B I got in college -- and if B really means "above average," I don't think I deserved that grade. I felt my understanding of statistics was fuzzy at best, although it was good enough to fulfill the prerequisites for the Intro to SPSS and Political Analysis class. I did take that class in a traditional classroom, I should note, and as I did so, it became a lot clearer why I needed to know certain basic statistical concepts.

But my knowledge of statistics and statistical software packages has dwindled away to nothing nowadays. True, I haven't really been practicing or using either. But I have to wonder whether or not I ever had a strong conceptual grasp of the topic. Watching a series of video lectures served me well enough to complete class exercises and pass class exams. And for what it's worth, it was pretty helpful in my fulfilling various graduation requirements. But as far as what I learned and what I understood and what I retained, it wasn't so great.

No doubt, my experiences with this class and with other distance learning efforts colors how I think about online and blended learning today -- the opportunities and challenges and intellectual dead-ends alike.

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