Guest Column

A Fish Out of Water: My Entrée Into Electronic Learning


I appointed myself chief guinea pig. I wanted to find out for myself what it would be like to take an online class. I’ve been seeing lots of references to this new way to deliver instruction, so I decided to take a class that traditionally would be a hands-on course with lots of labs and activities. I registered for “Diversity of Fishes” sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History.

It’s important to understand that I have no formal training in science. I enjoy the outdoors, and I’d like someday to own a boat. At the time, a course in ichthyology seemed like a good idea.

Classroom Access
Here is the way these things work in the world of online learning. My course was an offering of Connected University, one of those newborn institutions of higher learning that exist only on the screen of your personal computer. I log onto the Internet and enter Connected University at Because I’ve paid my tuition fees, I have been assigned an access code that allows me to proceed to class.

So here’s the first major difference. I can go to class whenever I feel like it—early in the morning, during lunch time, at midnight or on weekends. I don’t need to follow someone else’s schedule. The assignments await me whenever I am ready to learn.

The home screen for “Diversity of Fishes” has a header that looks like a series of file tabs in a filing cabinet. When I click on “syllabus,” I see the course outline. When I click on “Week 1,” I receive the assignments for that week. When I click on “resources,” I receive a list of websites that I can visit to support the assignments.

The tasks for the first week included introducing myself to my 15 classmates and learning a little about them. Everyone was asked to say why they were taking the class. Most of my classmates were science teachers, and they lived in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Rhode Island. Howard, a physician from New York City, and I were the only nonteachers.

Most classmates, in offering a rationale for signing up, said things like, “I like fish because they are so beautiful and interesting” or “I want to study fish because they are critical to our environment.” I simply wrote: “I am mainly interested in catching and eating fish.”

Learning Materials
Surprisingly, we had a textbook. There were also lots of reading assignments on the web. Readings included background on the scientists leading the course and articles about the research they have done. I discovered that fish scientists are overly interested in how fish have sex. They seem obsessed with it.

I had to view several videos. (No, none were videos of fish sex.) Through the magic of the Internet, video clips can be played over and over again. There were the mini-lectures I had expected and displays of bones, carcasses and habitats. I was taken on a tour of the museum’s archives. I visited Lake Victoria in East Africa.

There were also lab activities. The first week I had to have a fish to study. I went to the local market and bought a nice trout. Then I learned that dead fish are not nearly as interesting to study as live fish. I had to measure certain parts and compare those measurements to others of that species. When finished, I had to go into our group forum and post my observations, measurements and what I learned about my trout. Just for fun I threw in my favorite recipe for trout almandine. The teachers were not amused.

The website was easy to navigate and the instructors designed this class with a wide variety of activities to accompany the readings. I was expected to post comments on every reading assignment. I was required to read and log my reactions to the posted comments of classmates. We were given collaborative assignments in pairs and small groups. I studied photographs, wrote descriptions, categorized fish families and analyzed various charts and graphs. I corresponded with actual ichthyologists (fish scientists).

I spent more than 40 hours on this six-week course. Usually I worked 2-3 hours between 9 p.m. and midnight and on weekends. During one week, I was too busy with other responsibilities to spend any time in class, but I didn’t miss anything. It was all waiting for me when I returned. Sometimes I was the last student to post my assignment. Sometimes I was the first.

One thing that I really enjoyed was the interaction with the staff. Virtually every one of my assignments received detailed comments from either the online course assistant, an experienced teacher herself, or one of the two museum scientists assigned to the class. That is perhaps more personal feedback than most students get when they see the teacher every day.

Missing Smells
Did I learn anything? I learned more than I really cared to know about the big-eyed armored catfish, which was the specialty of one of our instructors. I learned that Lake Victoria, once home to 300 species of cichlid fish, is now dying due to pollution and the introduction of the Nile perch. The lake today has nothing but perch and one kind of shrimp.

At one point, I feared the class was getting far too technical for me. A couple of weeks were devoted to systematics and cladistics and dichotomous keys. This is the scientific business of classifying creatures by genus and species. Which fish is most related to which other fish? I have to say, I began to lose my enthusiasm at that point.

Now that the class is over, I think learning remotely by computer has its place and its purpose. Students who attend small, isolated schools with limited course offerings and those who may be recovering from illness or injury will find this approach better than most of the alternatives. But such courses will not replace the traditional classroom, nor are they designed for that purpose.

The idea of taking classes without leaving the house or even getting dressed has limited appeal. Why learn about the world if you’d rather not go out into it?

Working by myself at home was not fun. You may have observed that most of my descriptions of class activities were based upon what “I” did rather than what “we” did. I felt isolated and alone. I wanted to know what my classmates looked and sounded like. I wanted to hear what they were passionate about. I wanted to know if they liked their jobs and what they really thought of our scientist instructors.

Taking a class taught by scientists who did both field research and lab study was a great opportunity. Online might be the only way to make that expertise available to a larger group of students. Still it would be great if regular teachers could have access to the same real-life resources.

Online learning might be an acceptable and surprisingly effective alternative for providing a class that is not otherwise available in the flesh. But there’s nothing like the smell, the feel, the stimulating environment of a skilled teacher and interested students all in one room.

Dan Curry is superintendent of the Wood County Schools, 1210 13th St., Parkersburg, WV 26101. E-mail: