Cyberspace Learning: I Give It an A-

How do you study with Hollywood's screenwriting greats when you live in Chicago?

After an abysmal stint with a local screenwriting teacher, I stumbled onto the Professional Program in Screenwriting Online at the University of California at Los Angeles--the electronic alternative to the renowned bricks-and-mortar version. Assured by administrators that the virtual seminar would have all the heft of the real thing, I plunged in, paying my $3,000 (same price as offline).

Then, last September, an E-mail alerted me about our first class. Firing up my 56K modem, I dialed into the UCLA server at 3 p.m. Pacific Time and clicked on the button for my chat-room-cum-lecture-hall. Inside, my classmates bobbed on the screen in an Orwellian sea of flickering black type. I wondered how we were going to have any Dead Poets Society moments like that. But Judy Burns, our teacher and a seasoned Hollywood story editor, had a talent for using her keyboard to generate that captain-oh-captain encouragement: ''I'm just an old lady now,'' she told us, ''dedicated to making great screenwriters out of all of you.'' I could just picture her in the classroom, arms flailing at the podium.

In our virtual schoolhouse, protocol was paramount. Instead of raising our hands, we typed !. When we were finished commenting, we indicated so with a /. We could be happy--:). We could be sad--:(. We could pass notes (by clicking on the name of the person we wanted to whisper to). But we rarely flirted--;). Sometimes, with the other faculty who occasionally taught us, we could even get in trouble: ''MICHELLE I TOLD YOU TO USE PROTOCOL NEVER INTERRUPT AGAIN EVER PLEASE/,'' :(, I whispered.

At first, I thought the online medium would bleach the class of personality. I found the opposite was true: All that white space gave us great practice for writing snappy one-liners. One night, when an Internet service provider kept kicking my classmate Lynda out of the room, another student, Anjum, quipped: ''She's going through her existential phase.''

Online had other advantages over the offline world. On campus, students usually read each others' work in a mad rush when they arrive in class. Online, we had our own mailboxes where we posted scenes two days before class. This meant that we had all considered each others' scripts before we convened and had our critiques ready. Jim Schmerer, another UCLA teacher, has even come to think that online students are more dedicated than those on campus. He says UCLA attendance in cyberspace is 95%, vs. 80% at the real-life school.

NOTHING MISSED. I'm also a big fan of the school's logging feature, which allowed me to save the class on my hard drive. No fears about missing that single brilliant note that would turn a limp scene into a zinger.

I'm still a staunch advocate of in-the-flesh teaching for those who can swing it. After all, I never got to swap stories with my cyberpals in some smoky watering hole. But I did get my first feature-length screenplay doctored by the finest of Hollywood's old hands. And I didn't need to suffer another dud instructor in Chicago. (I have since moved to New York.) Plus, I experienced a certain fin-de-siecle satisfaction. Plugging into class from motel rooms and cybercafes across the country, I felt as though I was a part of some educational cabal, complete with my own password for admission. It wasn't Dead Poets Society. But it was a new kind of society--just one that hadn't yet had its day in celluloid.

By Michelle Conlin in New York

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