My class and I were part of a radically new phenomenon. Some call it Long Distance Learning; others say it's a virtual University. But whatever it's called, it will undoubtedly change education. "I believe electronic communication is a marvelous thing because it opens up a new way for human beings to connect," says Dr. Gregory C. Farrington, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. "It doesn't stop the old waysit just facilitates the spread of information and knowledge that the world has accumulated."
Others are cautious about overstating the potential of electronic communication and long-distance teaching. "The Internet can enhance the society of the university and quicken its pace of discovery and invention," explains University of Pennsylvania's Stanley Chodorow in the Jan. 27, 1995 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, "but the electronic environment cannot replace physical human society."
Teaching via the computer been practiced at the University of Pennsylvania since 1993, and it's already causing shock waves in the way education is perceived there. Professor Al Filreis teaches a course called Modern American Poetry 288 that holds traditional classroom meetings but then extends itself on a listserv (an electronic mailing list that forwards messages to the whole class). Classes meld into a 24-hour environment through the magic of a modem. "No class I've taken has even been on the same planet," says Brandon Fogel, a recent student in the class. "My life changed thoroughly and irrevocably."
Discussions would spill over into e-mail as soon as a class ended, and these electronic talks became "as heated, argumentative and emotional as their live counterparts," accord- ing to Fogel. All over a modem. "People who are not able to voice an opinion in class were able to do so," he says. "We became more aware of important details and the consequences of our arguments."
Because the classwork could go on all the time, seven days a week, students began spending serious amounts of emotion and mental energy studying the poetry and interacting with each other and the professor. It becameand more than one student has said thislike a 24hour coffeehouse. Although the listserv began as an extension of the classroom, an ornament of Modern American Poetry 288, the mailing list gradually became the driving force behind it. When students about the course, it is what happened through e-mail, not what tool place in the classroom, that dominates the conversation.
Student Liz Fekete says, "I could 'learn' at two in the morning, when I checked my e-mail. If I didn't get a chance to say what I wanted to in class, I could put it up on the listserv. It was as if all the traditional limits to a classlocation, sticking to the syllabus, maintaining some kind o orderlike speaking when called upon, for examplewere broken down. Everything became more meaningful because you were thinking about the course every time you checked your email, not just during the hour and a half of the classroom."
One frustration, though, was having to wait for a response and then not being online when the response camea common complaint or concern with online education. Talk is asynchronous, not in logical order, and, truth be told, some students thrive more in this environment than others. While students who are more comfortable with online life can dominate discussions, every one does have the chance to get in his or her two cents. And unlike usual life in academia, the teacher can be reached at any hour. "You don't have to wait for office hours or class," says Fekete. "You get a chance, too, to hear more about your professor's viewsand in a more informal way. It's much easier to disagree with a professor over e-mail than face to face in a classroom."
The New School for Social Research in New York put its first classes online in the spring of 1994. Three courses were offered in a program called DIAL (Distance Instruction for Adult Learners), one of which was called "The Making of Americans" and included the study of T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein. Everyone was a neophyte: students, teachers, even the administrators. Take Meg Foley McCabe, for instance. The 32- year old with a background in dance was installed as manager for curriculum development. In a few days, she went from having no experience in cyberspace to instructing online. Stephen J. Anspacher had little technical background, either. He became the director of distance learning. When asked how he happened to end up in charge of DlAL, he replies, "I must have done something in my past lives."
Indeed, academia online is in such a nascent state, comparable to thc very early days of TV, that the window of opportunity and invention has been thrown wide open. Patricia Gonzalez, who had four years' experience in computers before coming to DIAL, is now program coordinator. She oversees the technical end and is the person faculty and students consult when a knotty problem arises. "Nearly all of the faculty had little knowledge of conferences and sending e-mail," Anspacher says.
The most unlikely professor for this new gadgetry turned out to be the most creative in using it. Dr. Sondra Farganis, associate dean for academic affairs, comes across as a scholarly Elaine May. According to Anspacher, she had to be "dragooned" into trying this new way of teachingshe had claimed that she couldn't even operate a toaster. Now she is Mistress of the Universe, a pro at online communication, the professor of an increasingly popular course in modernity. She may not know what upload and download mean, but she's learned that if she hits a certain set of keys, certain results will follow. "The steps were put down in front of meone, two, threeand I learned them," she says. "It wasn't hard at all. Even for a klutz like me."
She composes her lectures on a PowerBook as she rides a train from Poughkeepsie to the city. "You know, I had the fear students would miss my sterling personality if they didn't get to see me. Hey, they wouldn't know I looked like Ava Gardner! But, the funny thing is, your personality and what you're trying to teach comes through in this new medium. It really does."
Courses in writing have turned out to be the most popular at DIAL, but the odd course, one that no one might dream would work, can draw its devotees. Currently, the New School offers, among others, courses in musical appreciation, Chinese, German, "Foundations of Feminism" and "Censorship and the First Amendment"hardly topics that one would think of immediately for online instruction. From a modest beginning of three courses in the spring of 1994, DIAL moved to teach six in the summer of 1994, 15 in the fall and by spring, 38 courses were being conducted online. Class enrollment ranges from three to 15, with the norm being six or seven students. Tuition is $450 for a non- credit course. (For credit, it's $450 per credit hour.) A course lasts eight weeks, four fewer than regularly.
DIAL is not restricted by time zones or geography. It can be accessed throughout the world. One student comes from Singapore, another from Canada; others range throughout the country, from San Francisco to Maine, from Alabama to Oregon. Not only may students sign up from abroad, but professors may teach from nearly anywhere. Professor Cornelia Lauf teaches a course on the artist Joseph Beuys from Ghent, Belgium. Five students eagerly download her lectures and insights and then fire off responses and questions. In effect, all it takes to teach or study is to have a computer, a modem and a telephone line. Someone from the backwoods of Santa Domingo, who uses solar heat to generate electricity and a cellular phone for the outside world, plans to join.
To simulate a campus environment, DLAL offers online hangouts for faculty and students. All are named after real hangouts in Manhattan. Cafe Loup is a conference where faculty members chat about their courses, their livesanything they feel like bringing up. Cedar Tavern is for students and faculty to get together on an informal basis. Bar Six is for students onlythere for them to gripe away and share information on professors and work loads. DIAL also has a conference called Technical Questions & Answers, whereby problems in mastering the system can be addressed. (A 24-hour phone help line also is available for teachers and students who suddenly find themselves uploading a response into nowhere or discover what looks like hieroglyphics where the English language should be.)
The antecedent for online instruction is actually an old chestnut, the correspondence course, where the homebound or incarcerated have turned for more than a hundred years to gain knowledge or a degree. As is true with all distance learning, not being able to actually walk into a chalk-scented room or glimpse ivy where you study undoubtedly affects students. DIAL is working on a plan that will allow bachelor of arts candidates to spend two weeks in the summer in New York. There are also "office hours" during every course, where a student may call a professor and speak personally over the phone, away from asynchronous chat.
At this writing, DIAL is one of the few college programs in the country that instructs solely via computer. The University of Pennsylvania and Duke University, in Durham, N.C., both leaders in online learning, still combine online classes with live instruction. DIAL tries to keep everything simple. Teachers are given a short course in how to operate the machinery and then are given freedom, academic freedom, to instruct; students are given a concise syllabus of assignments and topics for discussion for every week. There is a Greetings board, which students see each time they sign on. Here the professor makes announcements and general comments. (At another university in 1987, a study of two online graduate seminars found that the average usage was four hours per week, when the course encouraged them to spend only two to three. The instructors in these conferences contributed only 10 percent of the course information, which 90 percent of the students found adequate.)
At the end of a DIAL course, students are given grades. They are judged by the usual criteria: the quality of assignments they turn in, their ability to meet deadlines and their participation in class discussion. Online instruction is unique in that some students tend to lurk in cyberspace, eyes gazing at screens, but not "raising their hands," not participating. It is a world made for the voyeur. "It is very important," Gonzalez says, "for teachers to draw up a strict syllabus, which lists what is expected each week, so there is no room for doubt." Classes often become intense and intimate over the eight-week semester, all while members are locked in their own private spaces, not laying eyes on one another, their only form of contact being the screen in front of them. In this world, one member may go through eight weeks of George Eliot and Anthony Troll with a view of cactus outside his window in Arizona, while his or he teacher suffers from a cold watching the snow drift down in Manhattan.
How does one sign up? Universities such as Duke and Pennsylvania list the offerings in their catalogs. The New School accepts applications by phone, mail and in person (fax: 212-229-5648) Literature about online instruction is slowly but surely creeping across campuses.
DIAL's technical equipment, the machinery that makes the system work, blinks and softly hums in a room hardly larger than a closet. The powerful unit that acts as the host computer for all the lectures, assignments and responses resembles nothing so much as a VCR ready to receive a movie cassette hardly an ivy- covered hall. "Each night at 4 a.m., we take out a tape that has recorded all that has gone on in every class and file it away," Anspacher says, holding up a small tape a little wonderingly.
For better or worse, a revolution is at hand. Advances in hardware and software have made it possible for anyone with a computer and modem to attend college if he or she is otherwise qualified. But like all revolutions, this one undoubtedly will bring mixed blessings. As Chodorow, provost at the University of Pennsylvania, explains in the The Cbronicle of Higher Education: "We humans cannot thrive in a bodiless, frownless, smileless ecology, and our intellectual society cannot be complete without physical interaction." In other words, distance learning can never completely replace the wisdom of one lone professor, fumbling for words, struggling to convey meaning, face-to-face in a classroom.
Last modified: Wednesday, 08-Jan-1997 22:26:08 EST