Emory Report

April 24, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 30

Online learning: a tangled web?

By Amy Benson Brown, assistant editor of Academic Exchange.

With technology, as with everything else, our children show us who we are-and who we're becoming.

My preschooler's hands barely cover the mouse she deftly guides while her baby sister bangs away on an old keyboard. Daily, computer-generated prompts are downloaded, as it were, into their still-developing brains. The conversation about the shaping power of technology on the identities and learning styles of the next generation of students, however, tends to overlook the shaping power of technology on the identities and teaching styles of professors.

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 of faculty in the classroom. Even as Ivy League schools like Columbia University enter into collaborations with for-profit web companies, the battle rages about the real value of distance learning.

Recently Jamie Merisotis, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, challenged the widely reported findings that there is no significant difference in outcomes between conventional classroom instruction and distance learning. Merisotis maintained that such evaluations of distance learning are based on highly flawed evidence and suspect strategies of interpretation.

To complicate the picture further, a recent faculty study at the University of Illinois concluded that well-crafted distance learning classes can indeed be highly effective--but they are just as costly as traditional instruction.

Even professors teaching traditional subjects in traditional buildings remark that taking real advantage of technology reshapes the geometry of that old, teacher-student-subject love triangle. Having so many texts and images about Asian history available online, for example, allows Emory history professor Mike Ravina's syllabi to be more dynamic.

"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," Ravina says. The promise of making students into more active learners and pushing their studies along the arc of their individual curiosity may remake professors into facilitators, rather than disseminators of knowledge. 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 Jim Morey describes the e-mail that greets him each morning. And the ability to group students into virtual communities and conduct class online can be a double-edged sword that slices into a professor's time.

"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 "distributed learning" adopted by the master's program of the School of Public Health helps each student find a voice though a highly individualized style of learning that blends virtual classes with some face-to-face interaction, according to Peggy Hines, administrator of that program.

Each faculty member in the program receives a graduate assistant because this approach demands roughly double the effort of traditional teaching. And, like the professors at the University of Illinois, Hines has found that high-quality distance learning currently costs as much, if not more, as 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 ITD Manager of Teaching and Research Services Alan Cattier recently brought Emory and Oxford students together for an online discussion of rural versus urban issues, accentuated by the fact that the students were speaking both from and about their actual campuses. Such highly reflective virtual exchanges made the substance of the conversation much more meaningful when the students finally met in person, remarked Cattier.

Anecdotal reports suggest that female students tend to assert their voices more online than in traditional classrooms. Nationally, Hines notes that female students with young children lead the pack in distance education and seem to cope better with the faceless, virtual environment than their male counterparts. The absence of face-to-face contact, though, can also threaten community.

In "The Politics of Identity," a course regularly taught by Institute for Liberal Arts faculty Kim Loudermilk, Eddy Bay and others, faculty 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 online identities, says Loudermilk.

A role-playing assignment that requires students to perform as someone else online also pushes them to think critically about the supposed "anonymity" of the Internet. Students discover the ways that personal traits like gender shape their self-presentations, and how stereotypes can follow people from their real-life interactions to their virtual ones.

As the shaping power of technology on the next generation of students and professors increases, another thing is sure to grow with it--the need to unplug. By the time today's preschoolers are in college, quips Ravina, the old goal of getting kids to turn off the TV will seem "Mark Twain-quaint." Professors too may discover the need to redesign the interface between teaching and technology.

This essay first appeared in Academic Exchange.

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