2002: A cyberspace odyssey

Just picture eager early-decision admits languishing through senior year in high school.

"We've got all these kids panting to identify themselves with Penn, lining up to be our kids by December, and then we just bombard them with distracting junk mail for nine months before we let them do anything serious about Penn," e-mailed Jim O'Donnell, professor of classical studies and vice provost for information systems and computing, and, as if that weren't enough, faculty master of Hill College House.

Jim O'Donnell

E-mail, by the way, is O'Donnell's favorite mode of communication. So he and fellow e-mailer Al Filreis, professor of English, director of writing programs, faculty master of Van Pelt College House, and director of Writers House (whew!), came up with a solution.

A pre-matriculation e-mail class. Free and not-for-credit, it's for the love of learning, but it's an experiment that may lead to credit-bearing pre-matriculation courses that polish off a requirement or give students a taste of something new.

Welcome to the world of distance learning.

More than 65 early decision admits from the Class of 2002 responded eagerly via e-mail to the call for participants. Based on their letters, 32 made the final cut. "PLEASE, for the love of God, let me participate ... lest I fall prey to the brain-dead plague of most second-semester seniors," wrote Ariel Horn, one of the students now enrolled in the course.

The students come from as far away as Pakistan and Malaysia. But they're as close as their computers -- unless, of course, a glitch prevents communication, as it did when Ena Marwaha fell off the listserv. Joshua Chu has limited computer access to a computer while he's in Singapore on a youth leadership program with his church. But an archive of all the electronic discussion allows them both to catch up.

The course, even though it is on a listserv, runs much like a normal seminar, with reading assignments, discussions (that cross over the ether) about ideas and assignments, and probing questions from the faculty. The insights read like a typical college course: "Books and other forms of the written word are records of our thoughts," mused Rachel Sherman, "and therefore proof of our existence."

Further proof of the course's existence lies in the home page, http://www.english.upenn.edu/2002 (that's the Class of 2002, in case you're wondering), which one of the enrollees took it upon himself to create.

Al Filreis

The two professors hoped the course would give students more than just an introduction to academia at Penn. The students are finding just that: "Learning about each other without ever seeing one another has brought me a new perspective on individuality," Kathryn Whitfield e-mailed, in response to our e-mail wondering how the students were enjoying the course.

Filreis bubbled over at the course's success to date: "I am just stunned by the students' ... passion for starting now to learn at the university level. With all the complicated talk about 'life-long learning,' it's easy to forget how technologically and pedagogically simple it is to get a head start on teaching our new students. I consider this the ultimate 'New Student Orientation.'"

Originally published on February 12, 1998