Title: Traditional Classroom Lectures Badly Combined with Distance Learning

Date Written: November 30, 2019

Date Occurred: December of 1986 through May of 1987

Written by: Joel Kant


In the present as I type this story, many high school and college courses are being offered both as traditional lectures that take place in a classroom or as online courses. My daughter Carol took an on-line Macro-Economics course this summer, and liked it. All the way back in 1987, I had an early experience contrasting taking a course with traditional classroom lecture vs. what back then was called distance learning. I would not hear the term on-line course until many years after 1987!

In the fall of 1986, I had started my first job with my newly minted bachelor degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One of the first tasks I was given was analyzing a low-pass filter. I had used filters in labs with measuring the results with a spectrum analyzer to make frequency response curves in a Communications course at Madison. However, this filter was not made through hardware with capacitors and resistors, but through software.

A co-worker that I will call Stanley stopped by. I explained about using a low-pass filter but in the digital domain with implementation in software. Stanley said that he knew just the thing for me to learn much more about this topic. He said that he was starting a graduate class in Digital Signal Processing starting in a month at Boston University. He said that he had applied, and gotten in as a grad student in electrical engineering. He went on that he felt that he could work here full-time while taking one course a semester until he had his master degree. This was his first course toward that goal.

Where we worked, having a master degree was definitely an improvement over the bachelor degree that Stanley and I had. In fact, many of our co-workers had Ph.D.'s!

Stanley suggested I do the same. With his help and with blinding speed, I was through the application process and accepted into the same class starting in January as him.

I had graduated in August 1986, so a summer graduate to take one Tech Writing class because the one that I had at UW-Platteville had been disallowed just before my planned May graduation. So, I had taken the rather useless class that previous summer and graduated. I then had gotten a great job in Lexington, Massachusetts working more as a scientific programmer than an electrical engineer.

Starting grad school in EE already in January 1987 even if just one class seemed life was moving very fast!

Stanley explained that since doing digital filters was related to our work, our employer would pay the tuition for the course if we got at least a B. Stanley explained that in grad school, a grade of C is looked at more like a D would be when an undergrad, so we needed a B or better.

The next issue was how to get to the class. It met twice a week during the evening. My understanding was it was a traditional lecture in the classroom. Boston University is located near Fenway Park in the heart of Boston itself, not out in the suburbs like our workplace.

Stanley said that he planned to drive there. I knew back at UW-Madison that parking on campus was a huge problem in Madison. Even if one could get a parking permit for UW-Madison, it had been extremely expensive! Freshly graduated with hardly any paychecks received yet, my finances weren't yet healthy enough for expensive parking. From what I had already learned, Boston was far worse for parking than Madison, Wisconsin had ever been.

Stanley found he could not get a parking permit. He lived in a very different area than I did in Arlington Heights, so it would not have been reasonable for us to ride together.

I noticed Boston University is on the Green Line stop very near Fenway Park. This is called taking the T, pronounced tea. In Boston, the T could be a bus, a subway, or a trolley. I could either go from Arlington Heights to a giant parking ramp for the subway called Alewife Station about two miles away. Then, I could take the Red Line subway to Park Street Station. From there, I could transfer to the Green Line that went to Boston University.

Alternatively, I could take a bus from Arlington Heights to either Alewife Station or to Harvard Station as either would work. From there, it was riding the subway the same way as described before.

Subways and buses were relatively cheap, but parking at Alewife parking ramp was not. I think I still have a round subway token for the subway in Boston in a drawer somewhere. Last time I was in Boston a few years ago, the subway used magnetic swipe cards, not copper tokens like in 1987.

A different co-worker who was amused by my educational ambition told me, "Once you have a Ph.D., that and a token will get you a ride on the subway!"

In other words, nobody working on the T cared one whit for the educational status of any rider. Those with fancy degrees needed a token just like anybody else.

It was quite a bit of travel for me using a bus to get to the subway station, then the Red Line subway, and then transferring to the Green Line subway.

Perhaps the vehicle on the Green Line was called a trolley rather than a subway. Despite living in the Boston area for so long, I never quite got this straight. The Red Line was called a subway. The last stop in one direction going toward where I lived on the Red Line was Alewife Station. At Alewife Station, one descended in gigantic escalators to the depths of the earth to board the subway. So, it was definitely a subway.

However, to get the Red Line subway from Cambridge to the proper city of Boston required crossing the Charles River. Proper Bostonians pronounced that more like Chah-les Rivah.

I thought subways would have deep tunnels to go under a river, but instead, the Red Line pops out of the ground to go across the river on a bridge. It has a stop located still above ground when just coming off the bridge called Charles Station. After Charles Station, it plunges back underground to head to the Park Street Station. If daytime when riding the Red Line, it can be startling to go from the black tunnels to the sunlight on the bridge, then after Charles Station to plunge back into darkness. I would get off the Red Line subway underground at Park Street Station, and in underground tunnels walk to the Green Line also at Park Street Station.

Although I would board the Green Line vehicle deep underground at Park Street Station, before it got to the Boston University stop, it would pop out of the ground and ride along rails on the street. Some people called the Green Line a trolley since sometimes it was outside the ground running at street level as it did for the Boston University stop. Yet, the Red Line was considered a proper subway rather than a trolley even though it also had an above ground stop at Charles Station.

At any rate, taking the T worked for me, although about an hour of travel each way. Actually, that was an amazingly short time given the two transfers: bus to Red Line, and Red Line to Green Line. In Madison, Wisconsin, I had never found buses much use in the evening. They tended to come every half hour or even only once an hour. Then, shut down around seven pm. This course wasn't over until around eight pm.

Boston was very different for public transportation. The city bus that went to Arlington Heights ran about every fifteen minutes with the last bus going when the subway had its last run at around 1:30 am. Both the Green Line and Red Line came in about ten-minute intervals.

Driving in the actual city of Boston was something I was scared to do at that time. I eventually got to where I could and did do it. Not yet, though. If I was going from Arlington Heights away from Boston, then I would drive. Going into the city, I would drive no further than Alewife Station, then use the T.

For example, on the road that went to Boston University, there were a couple lanes each way. Some people would just stop, put on their blinkers, and get out of their car to make pickups such as at a restaurant! Others would honk, but that seemed to make no impact. People behind the stopped car would have to merge to the other lane if they wanted to keep going. Sometimes, people would do the stop and put on blinkers procedure in the left lane!

I found it completely insane!

Stanley was far braver than I because he chose to drive in through that madness with his white mini-pickup. Not only that, he chose to park in a Boston University parking lot despite not having a parking permit.

I guessed that parking illegally would not end well in the long run. I had to admit Stanley got to Boston University and then later back to his home in his pickup much faster than I did by traveling by T.

Both Stanley and I got there for the first course with our respective means of travel. We then went to the classroom. I had come and checked it out some days earlier. It was a classroom with a computer at each desk. This was quite a thing in 1987.

However, there was a huge problem that I had not known about when checking the classroom a few days earlier. There were about twenty desks with twenty chairs, but about forty to fifty students trying to crowd in the too-small room.

With standing room only for half the students, the professor who looked like he was from India tried to teach. It was very awkward! Stanley and I had both out of abundance of caution been so early that we had seats. Those trying to take notes while standing had a hard time.

The second meeting, we were moved to a different classroom. This was a proper university lecture hall with many desks all slanted up from the back of the room. It looked like it could seat two hundred to three hundred. Our forty to fifty was far from capacity, but too many for some of the other classrooms in the building that could only hold about twenty-five or so. In the front of the room were blackboards. There were six of them, but only three across. The other three boards slid up and down on rollers. Thus, six boards visible when three were pushed up.

I once had a psychology course at UW-Madison in a similar looking and similar sized classroom with similar board arrangement, although there had been two hundred students in that class.

However, there was something different here. A big professional looking videocamera on a massive tripod was in the room.

As the class got started, some student asked about the fancy videocamera.

The professor explained that along with us in the room getting our lecture in the traditional classroom way, he was being videoed in live format with that camera. This was then broadcast to certain other areas around Boston that he called satellite facilities for distance learning.

I think there was a big computer company that had a room at their place for watching this distance learning. Thus, those people who were physically out near where Stanley and I worked would get exactly the same lecture at the same time through the wonder of the videocamera. That made our difficult commute seem pointless!

With that explanation of the videocamera out of the way, the professor got on with his lecture. For me, this was to be the best lecture he gave of the entire semester. I had to write fast to keep up. He rapidly had all six boards filled with equations, then went back to the earliest board he had written on to erase it and go on.

The next class, we still were sent to the large lecture room. However, there was now a big desk at the front a few feet before the chalkboards. A camera was mounted pointed straight down at the desk. In the corners of the room were four large TV's on wheeled carts. Large in 1987 would mean something like nineteen to twenty-one-inch diagonal measure since these were CRT televisions on a cart.

The professor explained that for the last class, those watching the video as distance learners had found the blackboard unreadable.

TV back then was still NTSC, with 480i. That is, four hundred and eight lines, interlaced. Not at all like the high definition television of the modern era as I write this.

For this lecture with the new arrangement, the professor did not stand like last time when he used the board. Instead, he sat at the desk. There was a big white pad of paper on the desk. The TV then showed just that pad, using the videocamera pointed directly down on the desk.

The professor wrote with something like a Sharpie, with thick, dark lines. It was very visible even with the TV's at the time. He wrote large so what was on the TV could be read.

While this made what he wrote easily read on the TV displays, it also had the downside of not much writing would fill the entire sheet. Every few minutes, the professor ripped off a sheet to the next sheet down in the tablet.

I found it was mainly an exercise in fast writing in my own notebook with almost no time to process what he was saying. It was just write, write, write as fast as I could the entire time because I dared not get behind as the sheets kept being swapped for the two hour period.

All the professor's focus was looking down at the tablet on the desk. Although there were about forty of us who were definitely not distance learners sitting in chairs in the lecture hall in front of him, it seems we might as well be invisible to him once he started writing on his pad. Raising a hand to ask a question would go completely unnoticed.

As for us in the desk, although the professor was in the flesh sitting in front of us, we could not look at him to see what he wrote. We had to look off to the side to one of the TV's on the wheeled carts in the corner to see what he wrote.

I found it a terrible experience for trying to learn the material. The material itself was great. The professor's knowledge was thorough and encyclopedic.

Still, week after week went on doing it this way. I was maintaining a B. Although not the A that I had hoped for, I was happy enough with a B since I thought the way it was being taught was so inefficient! I felt it would have been vastly better if the lecture for those in the desks in front of him had been strictly a traditional lecture. If doing distance learning, make it a studio and concentrate on doing that well. Trying to do both at the same time in the same room to me made it vastly inferior quality from what either could have been. The professor seemed to be trying his hardest to make it work, but that the powers-that-be at Boston University apparently thought it was acceptable to run a class in this fashion of both traditional lecture with students in desks and distance learning at the exact same time.

I found working full-time while taking a course like this incredibly tiring. I was still in my early twenties, so could get by on less sleep for a short time. As the months dragged on, keeping up was getting harder and harder.

Stanley since he drove in so had less travel time seemed to be having an easier time of it then me.

One evening, I got to class as usual by getting off the Green Line trolley at Boston University. As I walked to the building with the large classroom, I noticed an unusual sight. There was a progression of tow trucks all hauling cars behind them. I stopped on the sidewalk and watched. The tow trucks were going into the parking lots marked for Boston University. They seemed to be hauling off about half the cars there!

Class started on time, but Stanley was not there. He usually arrived on time. I figured I better take particularly good notes.

About forty minutes after class had started, Stanley showed up.

Stanley explained to me, "I saw tow trucks pulling cars from all the lots that I would normally use. You have no idea how hard it is to find a legal place to park around this place!"

I muttered back, "That's why I take the T."

In my secret thoughts, I felt Stanley was lucky to get away with all his illegal parking to have noticed the tow trucks in operation rather than going out to find his white mini-pickup simply towed away.

As the end of the semester drew near, the homework got harder and harder. The tasks I was doing at work seemed to be also multiplying in difficulty.

I had heard of people who would get master degrees by taking class at night or on Saturday while working full time, sometimes taking two courses a semester. For me, I was finding taking just one grad EE course while working full-time was pushing me to my physical limits. I was surviving this semester, but not thriving.

That I found the learning environment in the lecture hall so deplorable did not help. I think I would have done much better if the professor had been able to continue using the rolling blackboards as he had that one good day.

The class size seemed to be shrinking as the weeks went on and on so now around twenty students.

Yet, for the second midterm, a guy I had not seen since the first midterm showed up. I went over by him and said, "I thought you had dropped."

He answered, "Not at all. I just find these attending lectures done with distance learning video done at the same time useless. I'm a full-time B.U. student. These lectures are not just sent out in real-time for distance learning, but also taped. I just watch the videotapes on my own later. That way, I can pause to take notes or rewind. The professor writes too fast on that little white tablet for me to keep up with in this room."

As I thought about his answer, I thought watching a videotape that could be paused and rewound would likely be a better way of learning than this mingled traditional lecture with distance learning combined. However, the videotapes were physically located at Boston University so convenient for a full-time B.U. student, but not available for somebody who worked out in Arlington like Stanley and I did. I was unsure if videotapes for time-delayed viewing were available for the distance learners at the satellite facility. I think they were.

The guy further explained a bunch of others who I had thought had dropped the class were also doing what he was doing, so sometimes he had to wait his turn to get the use of the videotape now. It really wasn't that half the class had dropped after all! It was just people like him found coming to the traditional classroom delivered this way a waste of time compared to just watching the videotape.

It did show how little I thought of the way these lectures were going that watching a videotape might have been superior for me. It is the only time in my life where I felt a videotape would be better than a live lecture.

A kind of ongoing exhaustion set in for me as the weeks passed, but I kept on going.

The professor had a fascinating audio demonstration. He played a bunch of recordings made around 1910 on records. This was before electronic amplification, so the musicians played in front of a big mechanical horn to focus the sound waves. If you ever saw the RCA ad of a dog listening at a horn for a record player, then it was like that horn, but used to record. What the professor and his researchers had done was find out the various frequency and phase changes that happened with recording that way. They had then through digital signal processing undone it. It was astonishing to hear music recorded in such a tinny, distorted way changed to sound more like a modern recording.

It had then gone even further with removing the orchestra from the sound entirely to retain just the singer's voice, but also the horn caused frequency distortions removed from his voice. The singer was named Caruso. Then, Caruso's singing voice?with him long, long dead?had been carefully superimposed on the playing of the background by a modern orchestra.

The professor playing that on decent audio equipment in the lecture hall. I doubt the distance learners or those now just watching the videotapes later really got the full effect of the change in sound.

I was impressed by what had been done by digital signal processing! What we had learned in the class was still a long way from what the professor and his researchers had accomplished.

At work, sometimes people would make a run to a submarine sandwich shop about a half mile away. The sandwiches were good. People would take turns making the run. I sometimes drove in my old gray Volkswagen, but so did various others. Sometimes a group of us would eat at the sub shop, but other times somebody would take an order and bring back bags back to the workplace.

One lunchtime, Stanley decided to run to pick up bags to bring back to the workplace. He was going to pick up quite a stack of sandwiches, so I offered to ride along to help carry the bags back to our workplace.

We walked out to his white mini-pickup. The dashboard was in pieces.

I asked, "Are you putting in a new radio?"

Stanley angrily replied, "No, a tow truck operator did that!"

He elaborated by saying he had been parked in one of his favorite hidden spots in Boston. It was illegal, but he had been using it for some time with no issues. His luck had finally run out.

He said that his pickup had an alarm on it. If the alarm is armed and the truck is moved, the alarm goes off.

He came out to find his truck gone. There was a sign identifying where towed cars are brought. He got a ride out there, bringing a wad of cash to get his pickup back. When he got the pickup back, the dashboard was in pieces. What had obviously happened was that when moved, the alarm had gone off. Much of the mechanism for the alarm was located under the dash. Wires had been slashed indiscriminately, with one of them having silenced the alarm.

Stanley said that he was furious about the damage to his truck.

The guy at the tow lot then claimed, "Your pickup was like that when we got it. Probably somebody was trying to steal it. You should be glad we towed it rather than it being stolen. That'll be two hundred dollars, cash."

Stanley said that he realized he was in the big city now. Of course, the tow truck guy had destroyed the dash and slashed wires to silence the alarm, but to fight that for compensation was going to be worse than useless. As outrageous as the claim was that it was that way already, it would be hard to disprove.

I bit my tongue to prevent saying maybe he should stop parking in illegal spots to prevent this. Yet, getting around by the T as I had been was a huge time sink. Finding legal places to park in Boston proper or in Cambridge was nearly impossible even if willing to pay.

I decided if I made a second attempt for EE grad school was going to be at a place without such difficult transportation issues!

Stanley and I both completed the course. We turned in our B or better grades. As promised, our employer paid the tuition bill in full.

I felt the same material with the same professor if done strictly in a traditional lecture style without any concurrent distance learning involved might have been one of the best college courses I ever had. As it was, though, I was done forever with Boston University!


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