No Longer a Novelty, Online Learning Comes of Age
The College Board Review, in its Winter 2003 issue, considered internet-based learning. Nearly 20 years and one pandemic later, the view of its author seems both utopian and shortsighted.
Prescience is a rare thing, and it’s often only apparent with decades of distance between prognostication and lived reality. That’s exponentially true when dealing with technology—especially when that technology is coming from Silicon Valley. The pace of innovation has been so rapid that, by some estimates, it has outstripped our capacity to keep up.
But let’s take a step back and consider what our digital lives were like in 2003. In the immediate years after the dot-com bubble, Web 2.0 was taking shape and, with “TheFacebook” barely a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, MySpace was the be-all-end-all social media. PCs were still mostly deskbound devices. The iPod had been around for a couple years but was still a sparkly boutique luxury item out of reach for most consumers. And around the country, high-speed internet, email, and well equipped computer labs started becoming ubiquitous on college campuses (and at some well-off high schools) around the country.
It’s hard to fault education journalist and academic Gene I. Maeroff for thinking, in these heady days, that online learning wasn’t just primed for boom times but poised to upend the classroom as generations knew it. It’s an argument he made in his 2003 book A Classroom of One: How Online Learning is Changing Our Schools and Colleges, which was excerpted in the Winter 2003 issue of The College Board Review. Indeed, he was absolutely bullish on its potential. “The internet is rendering time and place irrelevant to courses in schools and colleges, compelling educators and students to reexamine their assumptions,” he wrote. “Educational institutions and individual instructors throughout the United States are weighing how best to proceed into this uncharted territory. It is as if some great, previously unknown landmass had been discovered, with people figuring out how to cultivate its rich earth and extract its mineral wealth.”
In other words: There are gold in them thar microchips! Except, it might have been pyrite.
Doral Academy Red Rock Elementary School second grader Lauren Keeler, 7, has a "do not disturb" sign on her door with a list of rules as she takes an online reading class in her bedroom on her first day of distance learning, August 24, 2020, in Las Vegas.
There was no way for Maeroff to predict how rapidly our relationship with computers and life online would change in the years to come. Nor could he, or any of us, have anticipated a global pandemic that shifted all students—elementary, high school, and college—to remote learning. He also didn’t foresee, but perhaps should have, the digital divide in hardware and connectivity that strained families and opened up already-wide gaps in equity, access, and opportunity.
And while he focuses much of his attention and enthusiasm on the higher ed implications of going to school online, the techno-utopian sensibility in his piece—which, again, lands much differently today, post-social media—is difficult to dismiss. “Much of the talk about e-learning deals with ‘online courses’ and ‘campus courses,’ as if the distinction will forever prevail,” he writes. “The dichotomy will be far less clear by the end of the decade, when most courses will have online components, and faculty who fail to use the internet in their teaching will be as derelict as today's teacher who omits a syllabus.”
It took nearly two decades for that distinction between “online” and “campus” courses to break down. And when it did, it was due to a global pandemic and the results were mixed at best. It should be noted, though, he does mention, as an example of a beneficial online learning outcome, a student taking an AP course virtually when none are offered in her school. That has been the case during the pandemic, and it has opened up possibilities for students around the country to benefit from advanced coursework where it might otherwise be denied them. It is one of the unquestionable silver linings in all of our recent upheaval.
Maeroff died in 2014. It would have been fascinating to hear his thoughts on online learning as it manifested in 2020 and 2021. Still, his 2003 piece is more than a historical curio—it’s a dispatch from the bleeding edge of classroom innovation. He’s optimistic, but also wary of hucksters taking advantage of a potentially transformative technology. It maybe hasn’t aged as well as he hoped, but then again 18 years might as well be 18 lifetimes when it comes to technology. Still, it’s instructive to read the views of someone who not only believed in the potential of the remote classroom but also documented its nascent implementation. Perhaps his optimism can help light the way forward.
American educators and students usually accept without further thought the instructional paradigm that calls for a teacher to stand at the front of a room filled with students for a fixed period of time on specified days of the week. The main variation on the theme involves the teacher sitting ¬¬or moving about the room or an alteration in the number of students or the configuration of the chairs. It is all rather mundane, hardly differing from the pattern of a century ago or even two centuries ago.
The internet, however, is rendering time and place irrelevant to courses in schools and colleges, compelling educators and students to reexamine their assumptions. Students, if they choose, may enroll in online courses and avoid going to an assigned classroom for a designated period. Some students have other reasons to be online: Undergraduates who can’t find a place in their schedules for a required course may simply pursue it online along with the majority of courses they take in classrooms. Or a student who wants an Advanced Placement® calculus course that her high school doesn’t offer may take it online.
Educational institutions and individual instructors throughout the United States are weighing how best to proceed into this uncharted territory. It is as if some great, previously unknown landmass had been discovered, with people figuring out how to cultivate its rich earth and extract its mineral wealth. Eventually, when the Web figures in most courses, differences among courses will have to do with the extent to which a course is situated online. This means that online learning, given its eventual ubiquity, can transform the ways of teaching and learning. Technology allows for more modeling, visualizing, simulating, interacting, collaborating, and analyzing than has usually been the case until now.
An entire course need not be online for students to gain the wider perspective available on the internet. Much of the talk about e-learning deals with "online courses" and "campus courses," as if the distinction will forever prevail. The dichotomy will be far less clear by the end of the decade, when most courses will have online components, and faculty who fail to use the internet in their teaching will be as derelict as today's teacher who omits a syllabus.
Courses that continue to meet in classrooms are becoming more dependent on the infusion of technology, and students are going online to submit papers, visit websites that elaborate on topics, practice problem solving, exchange e-messages with each other and with instructors, go to chat rooms related to the courses, and participate in threaded discussions that expand interaction beyond the fleeting contact of the typical classroom.
A multitude of hybrid courses are emerging, incorporating various features of the standard classroom and the World Wide Web. This melding of approaches, mixing the old and the new, means that despite the continual appearance of new instructional technologies, good teachers will not limit themselves to the latest iteration. The effects will be felt beyond the curriculum. There are implications as well for the preparation of teachers and professors who must work with those curriculums and for the instructional policies of the schools and colleges that host such courses.
The danger is that the technological capacity and the accompanying possibilities will outpace the imagination and daring of educational institutions and the people who work in them. If this happens, there will be a massive case of unfulfilled potential for online learning. Stripped of technology, an institution's course will not promote learning beyond classroom walls to maximum advantage. Furthermore, the possibilities for enriched learning will not be realized if teachers are not equipped to incorporate technology into their pedagogy.
Fairleigh Dickinson University Associate Provost Michael Sperling, left, and two faculty members involved in the Global Challenge online program, in Wroxton College, England.
What Fairleigh Dickinson Did
Technology unchains faculty as well as students, making the world their instructional domain. Like Neptune commanding the far-flung seas from his throne, teachers can sit at their computers, instructing students anywhere—asking and answering questions about assigned readings in books and about material they have presented online. Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) in New Jersey became one of the first campus-based educational institutions in the country to promote this relationship when it mandated online learning for its students. The institution required that its freshmen during the 2001-02 academic year enroll in a course called "The Global Challenge." Twenty sections of the course were offered in both the fall and spring terms. Students examined such issues as the environment, health, armed conflict, and population from a world perspective.
Starting with that class of freshmen, Fairleigh Dickinson planned to require its students to take at least one online course each academic year. The university expects to spend $12 million over five years to develop the courses and install the information technology infrastructure needed to support the online program. FDU signed up about two dozen scholars and others around the world to teach the courses. This group that the university called its global virtual faculty included such people as Nilufer Bharucha, a professor of English literature at the University of Mumbai in India; Cheng Ming Yu, head of the economics unit in the faculty of management at the Multimedia University in Malaysia; and Tomás Chuaqui, a political science professor at the Instituto de Ciencia Polftica of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Fairleigh Dickinson will draw other members of this global faculty from such countries as Hungary, Israel, Jamaica, Japan, and Korea.
Michael Sperling, associate provost at Fairleigh Dickinson, said the requirement had a twofold purpose, providing students with courses that have a world view and making the internet a fundamental tool for students’ learning. Some of the 100 online courses that FDU hopes to offer through its global virtual faculty will be general requirements and most of the rest will probably be specific to individual academic disciplines. FDU said that it wants "to bring the world to the campus."
Elsewhere, hybrid approaches combine the classroom and the internet. A course, for instance, may meet twice a week in classrooms and hold a third session online. Students in the Core Composition I course that Vincent Piturro taught at the University of Colorado at Denver, partly in a classroom and partly online, received time limits by which to complete the online portion of their work each stage of the way. They had to contribute to a threaded discussion by a specified time and then got a second deadline by which to respond to the online comments of classmates. Piturro said that the deadline ensured that discussion was spaced out to allow enough time for reactions by all students and for him to evaluate those comments. If, for example, he assigned a question at a class session on a Tuesday, all members of the class had to register their responses online by Friday. Then, by Sunday, he expected them to comment online on the responses of other students. This gave Piturro enough time to evaluate the online exchanges and to discuss his findings in the Tuesday class.
The current situation and the future are best seen along a continuum. At one end is the classroom course in which a student does nothing online. At the other end is the purely online course that involves no work in a classroom. Strung along the continuum are courses that to a greater or lesser extent are mixtures of online work and classroom work. The place at the far end of the continuum occupied by the course given wholly online is new, the successor to the course offered by correspondence or television. The University of Phoenix and Pennsylvania University's World Campus* are among the more successful institutions in creating such fully online courses. A student today can enroll in enough such courses to complete a degree or even a diploma without entering a classroom. This radical option serves the needs of some, but can hardly be expected to predominate. More likely, many campus-based students will eventually take a few such courses for the sake of convenience and to overcome scheduling difficulties or just for the sake of variety. Already, the majority of enrollees in online courses at some institutions come from the ranks of resident students who attend their other classes in person.
James Pritting, a Fairleigh Dickinson University student enrolled in the Global, Challenge online course.
Online Pitfalls, Feared and Real
Critics fear that online courses are a gimmick at best and a perversion of learning at worst. Indeed, a pursuit in which teachers and students are invisible to each other raises questions about integrity and quality. No one can guarantee—even in online programs that operate under regional accreditation—that students do not have their uncles sit at computers and do the work for them or that institutions do not cut corners to use the courses as cash cows. On the other hand, what makes anyone think the high school and college students who paste together term papers from the internet for their classroom-based courses are more honest than online students or that vastly attended, impersonal undergraduate courses that subsidize graduate education at research universities exploit students any less?
Institutions that take e-learning seriously and recognize the crucial role of faculty place a premium on professional development. Places like the University of Central Florida have developed full-blown programs to help faculty infuse classroom-based courses with Web components. The implications are enormous when faculty examine their approaches to teaching, incorporating assessment as an instructional tool, and learning other methods for taking advantage of the virtual environment. They must reconsider a lifetime of habits, replacing or at least modifying methods acquired in classrooms. They must adapt lessons to incorporate technology.
Steven Sorg and Charles Dziuban, administrators at Central Florida who help faculty prepare to teach online, said that an important byproduct of the process is the reflection it causes. Faculty members who have taken their pedagogy for granted think about their techniques as they revamp their teaching to make it suitable to e-learning. "They told us they looked at every aspect of their face-to-face teaching to assess the appropriateness for online learning," said Dziuban, who conducted institutional research on e-learning at UCF. It was just such a process that Donald A. Schon, author of The Reflective Practitioner, urged on academicians in his writings of almost a generation ago, before the advent of online learning, when he underscored the importance of discovering by reflection what one understands and knows how to do.
There are many issues to resolve for faculty. Teaching a course online can demand more time than teaching it in a classroom. Electronic interaction gives students constant access to instructors who are under pressure to respond promptly to email and to intervene regularly in threaded discussions. Work schedules do not currently take that time difference into consideration. Should there be a pay differential? And what about the tendency of some institutions to standardize online courses, placing them under the authority of facilitators, who oversee the work and interact electronically with students but have little authority over content that has been developed by others? What about questions of copyright, ownership, and royalties for those faculty who develop their own courses for use online? Institutions are only starting to wrestle with these issues, which defy easy solutions.
Dalia Suhonjic, director of the Global Challenge virtual faculty and distributed learning programs, with Kuma Ketkar, virtual faculty member and Indian journalist.
A Mixed Picture
The inroads made by e-learning vary from institution to institution. Wellesley College estimated in 2000 that 65% of its courses were enhanced by electronic information. About 165 of the college's courses had websites and more than 250 courses maintained a presence on the institution's centralized system to provide support for email, bulletin boards, and conferencing. Thirty-nine of 42 academic departments offered at least one conference via the internet during the academic year, with an average of six such conferences per department.
Some departments—art history, biology, chemistry, geology, and astronomy—made particularly extensive use of digital images stored on file servers. The Knapp Media and Technology Center in the Wellesley library and the Knapp Social Science Center in the renovated Pendleton classroom building had facilities for audio and video digitizing, editing, scanning, and videoconferencing. Wellesley had a video network, television studio, radio station with streaming audio, and other state-of-the-art multimedia facilities. It is now a residential liberal arts college in which instructional technology has embedded itself in the mainstream, surely a harbinger for most institutions of higher education. Wellesley investigated what, if anything, it ought to do about moving courses entirely online.
United States Open University, which perished by the middle of 2002 for lack of enough students, dipped cautiously but more assertively into these very same waters, adhering to a distance learning model that included the internet while relying on a delivery system as old as the Pony Express: the U.S. Postal Service.
The university sent its books, video cassettes, and bulkier materials to students through the mail. Students could pursue fewer than 10% of the courses entirely online and those tended to be information technology courses. U.S. Open University offered courses at the graduate level and to upper division undergraduates, juniors, and seniors. The university's experience illustrates the pitfalls of online learning even for—and, perhaps, especially for—institutions that seek to offer high-quality liberal arts courses.
Lack of substance was not the undoing of U.S. Open University. Given more start-up time and enough venture capital to subsidize losses for a longer period, the institution might have found success. As a new, unaccredited university, it represented a gamble for students, and they were not yet eligible to participate in federally sponsored aid programs. The university had already formed partnerships to offer content for degree programs through such institutions as the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Indiana State University, but the Open University—widely known in Great Britain—was still not a brand name in the United States. Finally, its approach depended on the mails more than the internet and perhaps its failure reflects more on correspondence education than on electronic learning.
For the most part, online courses below the college level have been more slapdash than in higher education. Less care and originality seem to go into the courses, and, apparently, elementary and secondary providers spend less money to develop and design online courses. The programs remain in their infancy, and providers sometimes sacrifice quality to get online quickly. Moreover, the inclination of homeschool advocates to use online learning to gain access to public funds has stirred controversy and thrown the whole enterprise into question.
The lack of maturity of many of the youngsters places precollege online learning on shaky ground. No less than other forms of independent study, it depends on the self-reliance of the learner. It is one thing for the University of Phoenix to seek working adult students for its online courses, and quite another for some cyber charter in Pennsylvania to enroll any teenager who applies. Lax providers can undermine confidence in the entire enterprise. In Ohio, a dispute over whether enrolled students actually pursued online education resulted in a demand by the state that the cyber school return $1.6 million of its funds.
By contrast, Florida Virtual School has aroused less controversy. It was established to serve public and nonpublic school students throughout the state with online learning, beginning in 1996 as a collaboration between two rural counties with 77 course enrollments. Florida Virtual School was officially converted into a high school for the whole state the next year, and its course enrollment immediately jumped to 2,796. The course enrollment more than doubled to 5,900 for the 2000-01 school year and rose to more than 8,000 in 2001-02, reaching just about its capacity under the $6.5 million allotment that the school received from the state. There were more than 4,500 individual students taking one or more courses each.
Traditional gesture in contemporary instruction: Michael Sperling with a Fairleigh Dickinson student.
State Intervention Sought
What about the future? The National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) issued a report on e-learning near the end of 2001 praising the process, but, at the same time, urging caution upon schools as they venture forth into the cyber age. NASBE lauded e-learning as an innovation that schools should implement as soon as possible and urged that students receive credit for online courses, but the organization also warned that special interests were lobbying state legislatures to move immediately ahead with hastily conceived e-learning initiatives. The best course of action, recommended NASBE, would be for state policymakers to seize the opportunity and take the lead to ensure that e-learning spreads in ways that strengthen the public education system. This report offered a window on the struggle now under way to determine who will control online learning and who will benefit from it.
Many of the same observations would apply to higher education. It is unclear if online learning will protect and promote quality and integrity in its courses. Cynics assume the worst, that online providers are poised to become tomorrow's Enrons. The best policy will be to let this grand experiment go forward, to see what it can contribute to learning. All the while, state regulators, accrediting organizations, education associations, and consumer groups should remain vigilant. They should judge e-learning by its outcomes, seeing whether the courses deliver what they promise—not condemning the courses because they are designed and taught in ways that challenge the status quo.
* Elective editor’s note: Pennsylvania University's World Campus is now called Pennsylvania State University-World Campus