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The Secret Agent

Ulrich Boser 0

My editor swaggers into my office like a gunslinger heading into Dodge City. “I got a job for you, Boser,” she says.

“Yeah,” I say. “And I got 104 keys on my keyboard–including one that says `escape.’ ”

“Clam it,” she snaps. “I want you to check out one of those online classes. I hear they’re making trouble, big time. I need answers, and I need them now.”

“All right, boss,” I say to her back as she walks out the door. My computer winks at me like a small-time hood in a police lineup. Does it know something I don’t? I reach down into the bottom drawer of my desk where I keep the help, pour two fingers into a dirty coffee mug, and toast the screen. I swig it down and log on.

Such are the how-did-I-end-up-here imaginings of a reporter who spent hours poring over the hard-boiled prose of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler for an online class in mystery fiction. And after six weeks as a digital college student, I can say that online education can be as rigorous and interesting as old-fashioned learning–though a lot more lonely.

A is for anywhere. Perhaps the biggest mystery about online classes is how to find the right one: More than 2,000 universities offer E-learning classes ranging from Basic Refrigeration Theory to courses on Web graphics or public speaking. Once you’ve found a subject, figuring out the tech requirements and course structure, to say nothing of scheduling the class, isn’t always easy. Despite the “whenever, wherever” E-learning mantra, many universities still operate their Web-based courses on a semester schedule. Luckily, a few schools are more accommodating and offer self-paced classes–like the one I chose, the University of California-Berkeley Extension Online. Students who sign up for the online classes offered by Berkeley’s adult ed branch can begin a class anytime and take as long as six months to finish. Indulging a guilty pleasure, I picked a three-credit literature class called Mystery Fiction. The course traces the history and philosophical themes of the mystery novel, from Edgar Allan Poe’s early detective stories to the female PI novels of Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, at a cost of $525 plus about $6o for reading materials.

A few technical issues slowed the start of the course. My books were late from Berkeley’s partner online bookstore, Specialty Books, so I had to purchase the first novel locally. I also had some difficulties entering the message board portion of the class, but Berkeley’s technical support staff solved that case within 24 hours.

My instructor was Mary Ann Koory, a visiting lecturer in Berkeley’s English department. For each class she posted lecture notes online, along with photos and corresponding assignments. Her style was funny and engaging–and almost like an individual tutor. I would E-mail my assignments to Mary Ann (unlike my college professors, she always used her first name), and she typically would grade my work within three to four days, and with considerable attention to detail.

Despite distance learning’s often-lackluster academic reputation, the course required old-fashioned schoolwork and intellectual creativity. We read 10 short stories and five books, watched two movies, wrote a 10-page research paper, and took a final exam. Other assignments included writing a short essay on the motivations of a character in the 1990 book Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill and translating a portion of John Milton’s Paradise Lost into gumshoe prose.

Discussion with other students was supposed to take place on Web-based message boards. Yet since every student was at a different point in the course, and rarely did anyone–including me–ever return to earlier postings, there was almost no back-and-forth among students. As a result, student remarks seemed largely for the benefit of the professor. The course also offered a real-time chat option, but it was not required–and I never found anybody in the chat room the few times I visited.

Would I take an online class again? Sure. Would I take an online class instead of one offered at the local university? Probably not. While I learned a lot and I was able to vacation in Germany without missing a “lecture,” the personal attention of the professor was no substitute for having classmates with whom to toss around ideas (and gossip). Much as detectives–and reporters–need to do face-to-face research to perform their jobs well, I think I prefer my classes up close and personal.


This article appeared in the October 28, 2002 print edition of U.S. News and World Report.

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