Learning on the Web

By Robert O'Malley

You're like a lot of people: you have too much to do and not enough time to do it. You'd like to switch careers, but you can't afford to quit your job and return to school to learn new skills. You could enroll in an evening class, but you don't want to spend your nights wrestling with traffic or public transportation.

By chance, though, a friend tells you about an employment web site that also offers online courses. When you visit the site you find courses such as Introduction to Programming and Introduction to XML - exactly the kind of courses you'll need to get started on a new career.

While buying a book on XML or C++ is one way to expand your technical knowledge, you know from past experience that books generally can't answer all of your questions. Instead, you enroll in the Internet course because a teacher is available online to answer your questions.

Your solution, it turns out, is becoming an increasingly popular one for Americans who want to improve their job skills but are reluctant to enroll in a traditional school. Many of these working students are more interested in acquiring practical, workplace skills than in earning degrees.

As use of the Internet grows and web technology becomes more sophisticated, the Internet stands poised to change the way students learn in elementary schools, high schools, colleges, and beyond, say many online educators.

While new online courses are providing training for working adults with limited time to spare, corporations, schools, and universities are also developing online learning and enhancements to supplement traditional learning programs.

Suffolk University in Boston now offers an online MBA in management, while Boston publisher Harcourt General Inc. this year plans to launch the online university Harcourt Higher Education. Students attending the online school can receive associate's and bachelor's degrees.

Although E-learning visionaries are quick to point out that online education will never replace traditional face-to-face learning in a classroom, they predict that 21st century learning will almost certainly rely on an amalgam of classroom learning and online enhancements to meet the needs of the new century.

The Growth of E-Learning

"The needs are so great that people are going to continue to have both the campus environment and all these new online growth areas," says Judith Boettcher, executive director of the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN), which provides online educators with technical expertise. "I predicted at one point - oh, probably a year ago now - that by 2010 every course that's being offered in higher education will have some online component."

Boettcher points out that companies are increasingly turning to online courses to help their employees stay up-to-date on changing technologies. "Online education, I think, is probably transforming traditional business learning even faster than it's transforming the campus-based stuff because of the qualities of interaction and communication," she says.

Proponents of online education say there are significant educational needs that traditional universities are unequipped to handle effectively. "I think universities are structured for adults who want to complete a fairly comprehensive learning experience ... generally spanning years," says Boettcher.

Many of today's job seekers have specific skills they need to learn quickly to remain competitive in a fast-changing workplace. Some people may go through many careers in a lifetime and find it impractical to enroll in a formal degree program each time they make a change. Online learning makes it possible to learn from home while effectively balancing life and family concerns.

Boettcher believes that online courses also have the potential to broaden the possibilities of home schooling and provide more options for students studying in traditional settings. If a rural high school doesn't have the resources to provide Latin courses, for example, a student interested in studying that subject could take the course online.

Online learning also has global ramifications, she says. American students learning French and French students learning English could participate in a "collaborative course environment so that both groups learn the language while speaking and interacting with people from that culture."

Types of Online Learning

Today's online education generally falls into three categories. The first is a web-enhanced course in which the Internet is used only for e-mail and course communications. This form of online learning is widely used on college campuses now and continues to grow.

In the second form of e-learning, the number of classroom meetings decreases so significantly that the Web really becomes the classroom. In the third form, students study and communicate completely online.

A typical online course consists of course documents, resource links, and an "asynchronous" form of communication called threaded discussions in which students post comments online and receive responses from the teacher or other students. As part of a typical online course, students also create personal web pages to introduce themselves to other members of the class.

"Groups can discuss a particular topic and then post their group response to the threaded discussion," says Rita-Marie Conrad, an online faculty member in Florida State University's department of educational research. "Or one question can be posted and the group discuss it as a whole. I usually - unless the discussion is getting off track - will try not to be the focus of that discussion and be the knowledge provider. I shepherd them when they get off track and try to wrap it up at the end of the week and summarize what I saw in their discussion."

Teachers Adapt

In online learning, says Conrad, "You don't want to appear to be the fountain of knowledge." The Web's community atmosphere, she adds, tends to alter significantly the way students and teachers interact.

Conrad says university online courses are generally designed by faculty members in conjunction with web development teams. At Florida State there are now both graduate and undergraduate courses online. While students enrolled in graduate courses tend to live at a distance from the university, more and more undergraduates are also taking online courses because they're convenient or offer a solution to scheduling conflicts.

Conrad believes that the fast pace of contemporary life and the rapid development of new technologies is in part responsible for the burgeoning interest in online learning. "We are all so darn busy that technology is providing a means by which we can do more," says Conrad. "We can now work full time and go to school and get a master's degree, where before maybe you could, maybe you couldn't, depending on whether you were living in a college town."

The Skeptics

Not everyone, however, views the growth of online education with an uncritical eye. Some educators question whether e-learning represents a genuine change in learning style or an over-hyped fad that will eventually be discredited, just as correspondence schools were in the last century.

David Whittier, an assistant professor at Boston University and the coordinator of the university's program in educational media and technology, says faculty members at Boston University are both skeptical and curious about online education. "There's a lot of interest, but people are cautious," says Whittier, who believes "there's something to be gained from face-to-face interaction that cannot be gained in any other way."

Whittier says he has experienced both failures and successes teaching online, pointing out that in one case the online component failed because it turned out to be an artificial addition to the course. In another instance, however, his online experiment was an unqualified success because it allowed students to read and respond to each other's papers in a timely and effective way. Whittier says the online environment generated a level of interaction that wouldn't have been possible in a classroom. "We don't have time in the classroom to do something like that," he adds.

But like many academics, Whittier remains cautious. Online education, he points out, is "the latest in a long line of technologies that have supported distance education," some of which have been more successful than others. Like consumers of correspondence schools a century ago, today's consumers need to be able to distinguish quality online course from fraudulent ones.

A Major Critic

Other academics are even more skeptical of the new online fever, arguing that it's more hype than substance. In a 1999 essay titled "Reversal for the Revolution," the historian David Noble, a professor at Canada's York University, argued that the current enthusiasm for online education is similar to the hype that accompanied the correspondence school boom of a century ago. He points out that the correspondence schools were commercial enterprises developed in some instances by major universities such as the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University. These programs were eventually criticized for being overly commercial and for providing an inferior form of education. Noble predicts that the same fate will befall today's online learning boom.

"Education is a process that necessarily entails an interpersonal (not merely interactive) relationship between people -- student and teacher (and student and student) that aims at individual and collective self-knowledge," he wrote in his essay."(Whenever people recall their educational experiences they tend to remember above all not courses or subjects or the information imparted but people, people who changed their minds or their lives, people who made a difference in their developing sense of themselves. It is a sign of our current confusion about education that we must be reminded of this obvious fact: that the relationship between people is central to the educational experience).

Noble also criticizes online education's commercial leanings. "To make their enterprise profitable, however, they have been compelled to reduce their instructional costs to a minimum, thereby undermining their pedagogical promise," he writes. "The invariable result has been not only a degraded labor force but a degraded product as well. The history of correspondence education provides a cautionary tale in this regard, a lesson of a debacle hardly heeded by those today so frantically engaged in repeating it."

Unfazed by the Criticism

Boettcher and others, however, are unfazed by the criticism. Noble, she says, is "an interesting example of the trailing edge. When you take a look at the adoption curve you've got the innovators and the early adopters, and the early majority and the late majority. And then you have the laggards. I think he's a great example of a laggard," she says.

Boettcher believes that online learning can avoid the shortcomings of the correspondence-school model. "The really critical variable that has changed now between online education and correspondence schools is that the speed of interaction is now almost immediate," she says. "Before, with correspondence, you had to wait; you had to send your question to your teacher via mail...I mean probably a normal turn around thing would, if you were lucky, be 10 days. And now, what is it? 10 minutes. Speed makes all the difference."

Interactivity is another factor that sets online learning apart from its predecessors, says Boettcher. "The element of interactivity is what's really really important," she adds. "When I was at Florida State, we took the office of distance learning and changed it into interactive distance learning, and really tried to highlight the fact that communication and dialogue is at the core of education, and that interactivity is another way of saying communication and dialogue. That's when the learning happens; that's when the relationships happen."

Reducing the Anxiety

"I think the biggest thing that kind of defuses the anxiety a bit is that online education is not that different from what we're doing right now," says Boettcher. "If you look at a regular course, it's a combination of classroom time as well as what one would call directed study. And in the usual kind of formula, people are expected to study two hours outside of class for every hour in class....For the campus-based courses, you're taking the directed study and starting to move a portion of that to the Web."

"I think the important variable is not whether it's face to face; the important variable is whether it's been well designed," she adds. "And in some cases, in fact, face-to-face is very bad design."

A Mixed Future

In the long run, argue many educators, a mix of online and face-to-face learning will prove to be the most effective way to educate students in the 21st century.

"I'm a really really big proponent of what I call mix and match," says Boettcher. "I think having a course all on the web is not as good as having a course that's a combination of web and face-to-face. And I think that a course that is all face-to-face is not as good as a mix either. Because the folks who don't like to talk face-to-face don't contribute and don't get involved as much."

"Some people just like to think about what they're going to say before they say it and other people are just very spontaneous. And if you have all of any one environment it doesn't meet the variety of needs and personalities of the students... There are some questions where even a spontaneous student would say, "Wait a minute! I want to think about that."

"Online education is another tool," says Boettcher. "It's not a panacea; but it's definitely another tool; it turns out we don't have the luxury of saying we're not going to learn anything new right now. In fact, if I wanted to criticize David Noble, I would say that he's really at the point of saying he doesn't want to learn anything new, and that's not a good place to be in the year 2000."

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