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Ed. Magazine

The Wizards behind the Screens

What Are Online Teaching and Digital Degrees Telling Us about Learning? Before she begins teaching her graduate-level children’s literature class at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UT), Associate Professor Jinx Watson, Ed.M.’66, C.A.S.’79, steps into a room that looks like a recording studio. A mouse at her fingertips, headphones covering her ears, she leans toward a microphone and calls the class to order. A handful of students who have been socializing in an online chatroom end their digital discussion and don their own headphones. They gaze at their monitors, waiting for Watson to cue the first image. [caption id="attachment_9066" align="alignleft" width="100" caption="Jinx Watson, Ed.M.'66, C.A.S.'79 (Photo: David Bailey Photography)"]
[/caption] Welcome to graduate school in cyberspace. Watson certainly never envisioned herself teaching here. Before the UT School of Information Sciences launched an effort to offer virtual courses, she would have argued that she needed a hands-on, face-to-face environment to discuss the themes of Grimm’s fairy tales or the artfulness of Suzanne Fisher Staples’s Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind. “People who work with children as librarians must love ideas,” she explains. “My goal as an instructor is to get them to tap into their passions for ideas. I wondered, ‘Can I do that through a computer?’” After teaching online for nearly a year now, Watson has found that she can. As she leads discussions about a variety of genres in children’s literature, a software program sends, in real time, her voice, her typed words, and her prepared graphics out to as many as 37 students, some of whom live several states away. Taken together, the students read hundreds of children’s books during the course of the semester, submit more than 1,000 literary reviews, and make live presentations on texts to the class—all online. Except for a handful of students who work at computer stations in the same room as Watson, she cannot see any of her students. “That’s probably the biggest drawback, because it can feel strange to be so engaged in discussion with people you can’t even see,” says Watson. Still, she believes her enthusiasm translates across the miles of network cable. “Even though they can’t see me, they can feel me jumping up and down.”
Jinx Watson: “My goal as an instructor is to get them to tap into their passions for ideas. I wondered, ‘Can I do that through a computer?’”
As technology transforms the experience of learning and teaching at a distance, Americans are glimpsing a wired wonderland of ideas that may someday supplant the lecture hall. At the college level, more than 2 million students, nearly 15 percent of all postsecondary enrollments, will register for distance-learning courses in 2002, according to Department of Education projections. More than three-quarters of higher-education distance-learning programs now use Web-based courses. The University of Phoenix, which administers one of the largest virtual campuses in the world, offers online bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate degrees—in subjects that range from teaching to nursing to accounting—to more than 45,000 students. The New Wave Younger students have taken to e-learning just as quickly as adults, if not more so. According to a report issued by Interactive Educational Systems Design, Inc., a research and marketing firm based in New York City, 41 percent of public high schools subscribe to some form of online curriculum. A recent Education Week survey revealed that 12 states have established online high school programs already, others are developing them, and 32 states have e-learning initiatives in the works. [caption id="attachment_9067" align="alignright" width="100" caption="Sheldon Berman, Ed.M.'93, Ed.D.'93 (Photo: Richard Howard)"]
[/caption] The rise of virtual campuses, of course, challenges most educators’ understanding of the work they do. Soon, says Randy Bass, executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, traditional courses will become passé. Virtual schools will replace the class-hour concept with the notion of learning objects—small chunks of teaching that an individual pieces together to learn what he or she needs. So, instead of sitting with Socrates on a log, the student can now access bits and pieces of Socrates’ brain as required. “Virtual campuses could change the whole structure of education,” agrees Roger Schank, a leading researcher in the fields of artificial intelligence and multimedia-based interactive training, and author of Education and Virtual Learning: A Revolutionary Approach to Building a Highly Skilled Workforce.According to Schank, online learning heralds the demise of thousands of universities and colleges. A handful of colleges will corner the market in online physics courses, computer science courses, journalism courses, and so on, putting other lesser-known institutions out of business, he predicts. Online courses will one day focus on “doing” a particular subject, rather than listening to a lecture about it. “Psychology students will analyze virtual patients; engineering students will collaborate to build simulated structures,” Schank says. “The idea of learning by doing has been around for more than 1,000 years. Now we have the technology to teach that way.” Wiring the Way for a New Profile of Learners More than 100 years ago, the U.S. Post Office provided the technology behind the earliest distance-learning programs. Widespread use of the telephone and, more recently, the video camera made the remote-learning experience more three dimensional. In 1962, J.C.R. Licklider of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology wrote the first recorded descriptions of a Galactic Network: a globally interconnected set of computers through which everyone could quickly access data and programs from any site. More than four decades later, the Internet, the modern incarnation of the Galactic Network, has become as valued as libraries at major research universities.
Sheldon Berman: “Online, students can take their learning far beyond their textbooks into the real world of open-ended problems and unanswered questions.”
Tapping this new technology’s teaching potential remains a substantial challenge, though. Computers cannot, on their own, organize course material in a cogent way, or make complex ideas palatable to learners. Unfortunately most instructors have neither the time nor the inclination to pick up a new computer language, and few computer programmers understand the demands of the classroom. The worlds of technology and education need a bridge. In that Matthew Pittinsky, Ed.M.’95, cofounder and chairman of Blackboard, Inc., has discovered a golden opportunity. Pittinsky once aspired to become a classroom teacher. His one-year stint as a student teacher at a public junior high school in Washington, D.C., though, felt stymieing. “When managing a class with 20 to 30 kids, it is so difficult to give them individual attention,” he says. In his frustration, Pittinsky pondered how teachers might cultivate a truly collaborative learning environment that meets each student’s needs in a 45-minute classroom period. To frame a solution, he used what he learned working for a consulting company that builds communication systems for universities. “I realized that there is a lot of software for the administrative aspects of a university but very little to support what goes on in the classrooms,” he says. [caption id="attachment_9068" align="alignleft" width="100" caption="Matthew Pittinsky, Ed.M.'95 (Photo: Kent Dayton)"]
[/caption] At age 26, Pittinsky founded Blackboard with Michael Chasen, a longtime colleague with computer science training. One of the first companies of its kind, Blackboard set out to design software that allows teachers to hold their classes in cyberspace. Today, the company is the largest in the industry, powering online learning at more than 2,000 universities and high schools across the country. Its success lends credence to the company’s dual education and business mission. “The return on investment is the instruction,” Pittinsky says. “It’s just better teaching.” Blackboard’s technology allows instructors without any Web-design knowledge to put as much of their course online as desired&3151;from posting a syllabus to convening a virtual chemistry laboratory. University of Tennessee’s Jinx Watson easily archives and indexes one week’s class discussion, and accesses it when it becomes relevant later in her course. Her students can answer questions themselves from a frequently asked questions list without disrupting the class. They can even “raise their hands,” “clap,” or “smile” by clicking on the appropriate icon. Forgoing the Grassy Quads Those who seldom click obviously have not done their homework, says Lesley Olds, a kindergarten teacher in Ripley, Tennessee, who “attends” in Watson’s evening class from her home computer. Because she works full-time, has a five-year-old, and lives a full seven-hour drive from the only American Library Association-accredited graduate program in the state, Olds had no other choice but to go online for her degree. “It was a little frightening at first, because learning this way requires more self-discipline,” Olds says. “But I couldn’t have done it any other way.” Lesley Olds typifies the kind of student who forgoes the ivy-covered libraries, grassy quads, and afternoon games of Ultimate Frisbee of a real university in order to earn her degree digitally. “Before the Web, correspondence study was always seen as ‘second chance’ education for students who couldn’t finish school the first time around for whatever reason,” says Gary Miller, associate vice president for Distance Education and executive director of the World Campus at the Pennsylvania State University, the first higher-learning institution to offer distance courses at the turn of the twentieth century. “Now, many distance learners already have one or two degrees. They are active professionals who need to keep learning in order to advance in their careers but are unable to attend classes on campus,” Miller says. In the past half-century, technology has fueled an information-driven economy in which ongoing professional development is not just advantageous, it is necessary. That same technology now supplies the means for professional development delivery. Increasingly, society has come to view learning not just as something that happens during those magical years of spiral-bound notebooks, number 2 pencils, and bad cafeteria food. The dawn of the e-learning era has extended the school day—indefinitely. Online High In a highly wired room in Hudson, Massachusetts, 15 students gather for a transglobal intellectual adventure. They sit at computer stations and log onto classes that range from meteorology to mythology to music appreciation. They join students from 183 schools spread throughout the world for online courses taught by instructors as far away as South Korea and Malaysia.
Matthew Pittinsky: “The return on investment is the instruction...It's just better teaching.”
With a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Hudson High School, along with the Concord Consortium based in Concord, Massachusetts, started the Virtual High School (VHS) Project in 1997 as an experiment. “We knew that the instructional potential of the Internet was extraordinary. Yet high schools had hardly scratched its surface,” says Sheldon Berman, Ed.M.’93, Ed.D.’93, the superintendent of Hudson Public Schools and a coprincipal investigator of the project. VHS students attend regular high schools; that is, they read real textbooks, get punished for drinking soda in class, cringe when someone accidentally scrapes a chalkboard. But for one or two periods each day, the students log onto virtual classes. For a school to participate in VHS, at least one teacher must conduct a virtual course, in addition to face-to-face courses. For each teacher who participates in the project, a school may enroll 20 students in virtual courses. Last spring semester, that amounted to more than 2,000 students worldwide. Berman claims that the VHS model allows schools like Hudson High to offer their students a tremendous range of classes that they otherwise could not, because there would simply not be enough students interested in the biology of epidemics to justify a course on the subject, for example. “The Hudson High students and their parents are thrilled to have such a vast menu of subjects open to them,” Berman says. “Teachers are thrilled to teach a specialized topic that they enjoy but would ordinarily never get to explore.” At the same time, students can go straight to sources for information, mining the archives of the Library of Congress or e-mailing experts, for instance. “Online, students can take their learning far beyond their textbooks into the real world of open-ended problems and unanswered questions,” he explains. VHS provides its students with another opportunity as well: a chance to hone their computer skills before heading off to college or into the job market. An independent study by SRI International, a nonprofit science and public policy research institute based in Menlo Park, California, evaluated two separate groups of students who were taught the same subject by the same instructor—one group of students taught face to face, and the other via the VHS method. The results revealed that the students’ knowledge of content was exactly the same whether they had taken the class face-to-face or virtually. But by far and away, the students in the VHS classes performed better on computer skills assessment tests. “We believe this is true, because the students are learning with technology instead of just learning about technology,” says Elizabeth Pape, the chief executive officer of VHS, Inc.
Bruce Droste: “Virtual learning offers nothing short of fast, high-bandwidth, worldwide educational reform.”
Since its inception, educators have wondered whether or not distance learning really works. According to Christopher Dede, the Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at HGSE, there’s no single answer. “Asking whether or not distance learning is effective is much like asking whether or not face-to-face learning is effective,” says Dede. “Studies have shown that virtual learning can be just as effective as face-to-face learning, depending on how it’s done.” A combination of both live and virtual instruction might reach the most learners. “The idea is to have as varied a toolbox as you can. If you combine all of the different tools available in the online world with all of the tools available in a face-to-face setting, you’ll meet more students needs.” The Benefits of Learning Online Web-based high-school classes, similar to the kind that VHS offers, can, therefore, embolden the shy student in the third row who never raises her hand in class or the student who struggles a bit with English and needs more time to mull over texts or sound clips. According to Bruce Droste, Ed.M.’82, the former director of VHS, many students known as average learners start to shine when they go online. “I remember one student who signed up who had never done well in face-to-face classes,” says Droste. The student, who was confined to a wheelchair, earned an A in the VHS class. “The student explained that it was the first class in which he didn’t feel as if he were being stared at.” A disciple of e-learning, Droste now runs a nonprofit consulting business called Virtual On-line Training and Teaching that shows teachers and school administrators throughout the world how to run quality cyber classrooms. Recently, he traveled to Saudi Arabia to consult with education ministers there who want to set up distance learning for rural communities. In his view, virtual learning offers nothing short of fast, high-bandwidth, worldwide educational reform. “Online teaching has changed the way classes are taught—even the face-to-face ones,” he says. He argues that the medium itself forces a more reflective, thorough lesson plan. Teachers must create an entire Web site of information, complete with visual clips and sound clips, live links, and activity plans. They must articulate clear goals for the course in writing, lest the whole point of the class drift away into the digital ether. With 8,200 students enrolled last year, and over 10,000 expected this year, the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is the largest virtual high school in the country. Unlike VHS, which administers its classes in real high schools, during real class times, with real proctors who ensure that students really do their work, FLVS exists entirely without walls. Students throughout Florida log in at their own convenience, usually from home. They e-mail and call their teachers, and take part in discussion forums with classmates. E-Succeeding Sofia Konstantinidis could easily bear the title “Most Likely to E-Succeed.” A full-time student in her senior year at DeSoto County High School in Arcadia, Florida, Konstantinidis prefers to communicate by e-mail. She explains that with her full schedule of honors classes, a dual enrollment in a local community college, and a weekend waitressing job at her parents’ restaurant, she is never home long enough to talk on the phone during the day. Konstantinidis is taking an advanced placement art history class online—her third FLVS class—because her high school does not offer it. The e-learning experience has made her rethink her plans of becoming a lawyer. Now, she is leaning more toward architecture. Konstantinidis says she enjoys the freedom that virtual classes give her as a fast learner. “At times I am held back because others in my high-school classes require extra help,” she writes in an e-mail. “FLVS practically eliminates that problem.” Konstantinidis represents a new generation of learners who navigate the world of ideas at their own volition. They take on a mentor here or there, try out a new discipline when need or curiosity arises. For many of their parents, scholarship still resides in the hallowed halls of the academy or in the stiff pages of a textbook. Students like Konstantinidis know differently. For them, scholarship lies in abundance, and it is just a few clicks away. As technology topples the ivory tower, virtual classrooms may become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe—or, for that matter, the World Wide Web.

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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