Beyond the syllabus on the Web
By Amy Benson Brown

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Academic Exchange April/May 2000 Contents Page

While many faculty see the Web and educational software as simply the latest tools to facilitate traditional types of learning, national developments in distance education threaten to carve up and redistribute the tasks faculty perform in the classroom. And the debate about the real value of educational technology is far from settled.

Recently, Jamie Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, challenged the widely reported finding that there is no significant difference in outcomes between conventional classroom instruction and distance learning. Merisotis maintains such positive evaluations of distance learning are based on flawed evidence and suspect interpretive strategies. To complicate the picture further, a faculty study at the University of Illinois concluded that well-crafted distance learning classes are highly effective but just as costly as traditional instruction.

Even faculty teaching traditional subjects in traditional buildings note that technology reshapes the geometry of that old love triangle: teacher-subject-student. Having so many texts and images about Asian history online, for example, allows Emory history professor Mark Ravina's syllabi to be more fluid than static: "When you see their eyes rolling back in their heads, you can change directions and delve more deeply into the topics that engage a particular group."

The promise of making students into more active learners, pushing their research along the arc of their individual curiosity, may push professors to fashion themselves into facilitators rather than lecturers. This trend, however, does not seem to lighten the faculty workload.

Professors at Emory echo a growing national recognition that teaching online may be neither easier nor quicker. An ever-growing "hydrahead" is how English professor James Morey describes the email that greets him each morning. And grouping students into virtual communities and conducting class on-line can be a "double-edged sword," slicing into a professor's time as it carves a space for distanceless discourse, admits LearnLink administrator Adam Lipkin.

"What worries me," says Ravina, "is the expectation that teachers can do so much more, rather than so much better. It would be disastrous for everyone if the Web becomes some information age equivalent of Henry Ford's assembly line."
In contrast, the version of distance education, called "distributed learning," adopted by the Master's Program of the School of Public Health at Emory helps each student find a voice. A highly individualized style of learning blends virtual classes with some face-to-face interaction, according to Peggy Hines, coordinator of that program. Each faculty member in the program has a graduate assistant because this approach requires roughly double the effort of traditional teaching methods. Like the professors at the University of Illinois, Hines has found that high-quality distance learning currently costs as much, if not more, than traditional classes. Beyond virtually unlimited access to learning, the reward for such an investment may be a different constitution of intellectual community.

Several classes at Emory are self-consciously testing the possibilities of virtual community. In an environmental studies class, graduate student and manager of teaching and research services Alan Cattier recently brought students from the Emory and Oxford campuses together online. The discussions on rural versus urban issues were inflected by the fact that the students were speaking both from and about their actual sites. Such highly reflective virtual exchanges made the substance of the conversation much more meaningful when students from the two campuses finally met in person, remarked Cattier.

Anecdotal reports suggest also that female students tend to assert their voices more online than in traditional classrooms. Hines notes that, nationally, women students with young children are leading the pack in distance education
and seem better able to cope with the faceless, virtual environment than their male counterparts.

The very absence of face-to-face contact, though, can also threaten community.
In a course regularly taught in the Graduate Institute for Liberal Arts by Kim Loudermilk, Edna Bay, and other professors, faculty have noted that the anonymity of the Web sometimes makes users feel invisible, as if there can be no consequences for personal attacks on other students. Opening up a class dialogue on why such "flaming" occurs seems to curb the activity while helping students come to terms with their on-line identities, says Loudermilk. A role-playing assignment that requires students to perform as someone else on-line also pushes students to think critically about the supposed anonymity of the Internet. Students discover, reports Loudermilk, some of the ways personal traits like gender shape their self-presentations and how stereotypes can follow people from their real-life interactions to their virtual ones.