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On the Digital Road to Canterbury

An article by Tony Lavely '64 in the "News from Alumni House" section of the October 2000 Yale Alumni Magazine

Last March, I volunteered to be a guinea pig for a new online continuing education program offered by the Association of Yale Alumni. Over the years, I have returned to the Yale campus for alumni programs, participated in local Yale club education events, and even subscribed to a videotape or two. Nevertheless, it was with some anxiety that I ventured into this latest form of continuing education. Although I have been using the Internet and e-mail for at least five years, it was definitely a leap of faith to consider taking an academic course online. Two courses were offered in this pilot program, and I chose the one most closely aligned with my undergraduate major. After all, why venture into uncharted waters for both process and content? The course was "To Hear Their Voices: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Frost," with Marie Borroff, Sterling Professor Emeritus of English.

From the beginning, Process (the Internet) and Content (the poetry) vied for attention. The startup was challenging and not without a few glitches. The logistics involved juggling the Internet, texts, audio materials, and videotapes. Marie was most visible via the videotapes, speaking to us from a handsome Yale office.

Our instructor, Mike Parker '75, '79PhD, really brought a personal approach to the course. He aided, questioned, challenged, and sympathized, as the occasion demanded. Most of all, Mike made it fun. We started with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, so Mike asked everyone to write a personal profile in the Chaucerian style. Mike dubbed me "The Cook," after reading about my long career in restaurant management.

At various times throughout the four-week course, I plugged in from four different time zones and numerous hotel rooms. Clearly, I couldn't have participated in any other learning format. My laptop and the Internet made it possible. I almost met one of my "course-mates" face-to-face when Gil Colgate '53 and I realized we were both online in Manhattan over Easter weekend. Alas, that meeting did not occur, so everyone I met is still just an e-mail address, though we were all "pilgrims" on the same road.

There were eight individual modules, each of which had a reading assignment, a video lecture, a discussion topic, and a writing assignment. You really have to sign up for one of these courses to grasp their scope. After scrambling to keep up, I realized that the promise of "about five to eight hours a week of your time" was a cleverly baited hook! You could easily have spent twice as much time and still not have done justice to the material. As it was, I rediscovered Chaucer, gained a deeper understanding of Shakespeare, and really grasped Frost for the first time. I also "virtually" met 17 other Yale alumni, of widely varying backgrounds.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect was the use of an e-mail-like technique, called "discussion threads," through which you could respond to anyone at any time on the posted topic. Just like a realtime discussion, these "threads" created quite an intricate and interwoven pattern of comments. You could poke around in these "bone piles" for hours! Undoubtedly, the most fun was the evening our entire class came together in a scheduled chat room with Marie Borroff and Mike Parker. Since I have three teenagers, for whom chat rooms and instant messaging are a way of life, I waded into the Borroff chat room with no inhibitions. It went on for hours. You had to be there!

Like anything new, this experience had its difficulties. I wish there had been a more structured framework for contemporaneous feedback on ways to make the experience even better. There was an evaluation questionnaire at the end of the course, but these never seem to capture the moment. I am optimistic that Yale will continue to invest resources in this new form of continuing education. Whether you're a reformed Luddite, like me, or a computer jockey with your own dot-com, I urge you to sign up for one of these courses when one appears in your digital neighborhood.

ANTHONY M. ("TONY") LAVELY '64 (e-mail:AMLavely@aol.com) lives in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a former member of the AYA Board of Governors, a former president of the Yale Club of Chicago, and a current Fellow of Branford College.

AYA Contact: "To Hear Their Voices: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Frost" was a pilot for what is expected to become a regular program of on-line course offerings. Send an e-mail to steve.victor@yale.edu if you'd like to be on the list to receive information on these courses when they become available. To get information on the AYA and its programs, send e-mail to aya@yale.edu; write the AYA at Box 209010, New Haven, CT 06520-9010; or phone (203) 432-2586. From time to time we ask alumni to write articles on notable experiences of Yale after graduation. Contact Steve Victor, Associate Director, at the AYA if you would like to write one for this space.