Interactive television, or ITV, has been around since the 1960s, but has been rather dormant until now. The revolution in transmitting information has set its sights on cheaper ways to sell courses to vast student audiences dispersed over wide geographical areas.
The first time I was asked to give a course over "the system," I could do no more than blink dumbly and change the subject. It had never struck me that I might be asked to participate in what was being touted as "the university of tomorrow." I hedged on the offer for a couple of semesters, but eventually my curiosity got the better of me and I agreed to teach an ecology course to students sitting in "receiving sites" all over Maine, from the Canadian border to Casco Bay.
When I arrived in the studio the technician briefed me. I had a slablike white desk for my papers and a white "dry erase" board as a backdrop. Staring me dead in the face was a mounted camera. "That's the student's face," the technician told me. "If you look into the lens, the students at the receiving sites watching their monitors will think you're looking at them."
Will "think" I'm looking at them? Of course. I was to be a talking head. The goal, as I understood it, was to make each of my students - all 105 of them - think that he or she was getting the real thing, the flesh-and-blood professor who wanted each and every one of them to succeed.
As I stood at my desk shuffling my papers, the technician tooled around behind the window of the control room, pushing buttons, pulling levers, donning and removing headsets. He looked as if he were manning mission control. When he came out again, I asked him how I would see the students I was teaching.
"You won't," was all he said as he removed the lens cap from the camera.
So much for the interactive aspect of interactive television.
Students began to file in as I took up my position behind the desk. These would constitute my small "live audience," people I could truly interact with, on whose shoulders I could rest my hand in gentle encouragement, and whose eyes I could gaze into to gather how much they were comprehending.
The problem was, I wasn't supposed to do any of this. I had been told not to look at my "on site" students or else those out there in interactive television land might feel neglected. Even when a student sitting in front of me asked a question, I was to stare into the abyss of the camera lens while giving my response so that everyone would "feel" involved.
Even before showtime I was not liking this one bit.
Suddenly, I was on the air. I had been watching the test pattern on the monitor under the camera when my image just sort of popped up. Aiee! Did I look awful. My hair was a mess and - where did I get those circles under my eyes?
I was so shaken by my appearance that I didn't notice the technician motioning frantically to me to get on with the show.
Much to my surprise, when I opened my mouth words came out. Coherent words. The students in the studio with me conscientiously scribbled in their notebooks. I could only hope that those in receiving sites 200 miles away were doing the same. But for all I knew, they were shooting spitballs at the screen and making fun of my hair. I was suddenly seized with the realization that I was the only one accountable. Almost all of my students occupied a mysterious black box, and I was making an academic leap of faith.
Then the phone rang.
Each receiving site had a classroom phone that students used for calling in their questions. The speaker was a small white disk on my desk. I turned and began to shout at it. "A question? Do you have a question?" And then I remembered - look at the lens. The lens!
I tore my face from the speaker and stared pop-eyed at the camera. A voice filled the room - crackling and flustered. "Can you ..." the student began. And then silence.
Can I? Can I what? Can I repeat what I just said about photosynthesis? Can I speak a little louder? Can I change my hairstyle? Click. The caller hung up.
I pushed on. Animal respiration. Gas exchange. The water cycle. Trying to keep my eyes off the students in front of me and throwing transparencies under the camera lens with the abandon of a tuna fisherman. I paused every few minutes to ask if there were any questions. There weren't. The experience of the first caller had horrified everybody into silence.
BEFORE I knew it, the lecture was over. In the middle of my wrap-up my image had disappeared from the monitor, replaced by the rainbow bands of the test pattern.
The technician rushed out to me. "You were great!" he said.
Great? I almost suffocated out there. Had I accomplished anything? Had the monitors at all the receiving sites been working? Had there been any students out there at all?
I went on to finish my stint on interactive television, but I'll never really know how I did. At best I'm equivocal about the system. At worst I want none of it. If students and teachers aren't breathing the same air, then ITV amounts to little more than the raw transmission of information - anathema to the dedicated teacher.
A couple of years after my course, I was approached by a young woman who was visiting my campus. "You don't know me," she began, "but, I took your ITV course a couple of years back."
"Really?" I said, drawing in my breath.
"Yes. You were great. But at my site in the north I was the only one listening. The others were shooting spitballs."