Online education: A virtual reality? Online education: A virtual reality?
By Jay DeFoore

Twenty-six-year-old Brett Schneider recently completed a master's degree in educational technology without ever attending a single class. In fact, he only saw his Pepperdine University professors twice during the yearlong program; both times flying out to the school's Malibu, California campus. Schneider did the bulk of his work late at night in the comfort of his New York apartment.

Schneider and 23 other students participated in Pepperdine's distance education program, a "point-and-click" method of learning that utilizes Internet technology in place of traditional teaching methods. Pepperdine is just one of hundreds of schools that now offer courses and degree programs through the Internet. Everyone from Ivy League institutions to newly-accredited "cyber universities" are scrambling to meet the needs for "anytime, anywhere" education.

"Technology allows for boundaries to disappear," Schneider said. "Regardless of how much money they have, once computers are instituted, students have a whole world open up to them -- a very empowering world."

Nontraditional students are driving the current explosion in online courses. The average profile for a distance education student is around age 30, married with children, working a full-time job. Most cannot make commutes and attend regular class meetings, thus the need for a more flexible method of learning.

"Technology allows for boundaries to disappear... Regardless of how much money they have, once computers are instituted, students have a whole world open up to them -- a very empowering world."

graduate of Pepperdine University's online masters program

But while some academicians champion online education as the wave of the future, others argue that students are being cheated. There just isn't a substitute for face-to-face interaction, they say.

Paul Vorndam, an associate chemistry professor at the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo, maintains that online education doesn't work the same for all disciplines. Vorndam teaches computer-based introductory chemistry classes to non-science majors, and insists that students pursuing careers in science would be better served by the traditional, on-site course.

"Chemistry is an experimental science and everything students learn came from people doing things in a laboratory," Vorndam said. "Part of the education of chemistry is having people doing chemistry, not just reading about it."

Vorndam points out that the lab component of most high-level chemistry courses cannot be duplicated accurately with computers. What's more, he said, students taking online classes would be at a disadvantage when looking for jobs. "The industry wants graduates who can do hands-on work," he said. "With distance education, how do you get that lab experience?"

So while online education might not work as well for courses like chemistry or physical ed. for that matter, it does have its advantages in other areas. Many people in academia believe that Internet technology actually enhances class discussions and facilitates better communication between students and professors.

"Some people are very shy (in class) and become discussion leaders with that machine between them," said Carl Seiple, an English professor at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.

In 1995, Seiple added an online component to his introductory literature class for undergraduates. Two years later he was designing whole courses around listserves, email and bulletin board discussions, while continuing to teach in traditional classrooms. Then one semester a situation affirmed the value of Seiple's online courses. In mid-semester, a non-traditional student who was taking one of his on-site classes suddenly stopped showing up. The student's job had forced him to work another shift, making it physically impossible to attend class.

In most cases the student would have had to withdraw from the class. But since Seiple also taught the same course online, the student was able to continue the class without losing his grades or his job.

The flexibility of Internet technology is one of the major benefits driving the current revolution in distance education. Students in Tokyo, Moscow and Seattle can all be in the same "class" without ever leaving their homes. But with new technology comes a need for new methods of instruction.

"I would advise students to think hard ... about their own capacities before they daydream of completing a whole series of courses online."

English professor and general secretary of the AAUP

Sue Talley, a professor of education in technology at Pepperdine, believes that the very nature of online courses forces professors to reevaluate their teaching methods. In her own classes, Talley has had to learn the strengths and weaknesses of various communication technologies and apply them to her class. For example, she learned that chat rooms work best for brainstorming sessions, while bulletin boards, or threaded discussions, facilitate more in-depth thought. As a result, Talley now acts more as a moderator or guide than a lecturer.

In the program both Talley and Schneider participated in, students and professors were expected to log on and read news group postings every day. Schneider says the class posted over 1,000 comments in the first six weeks, and Seiple says he answers between 2,000 and 2,500 emails a semester.

If there's one thing everyone seems to agree on it's that online teaching methods are not a short cut. Both professors and students have to work harder than they would in a normal class, and for that very reason, some educators say online degrees may not be for the average undergraduate.

Mary Burgan, an English professor and general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, advises students to exercise caution before plugging into the online bandwagon. "I would advise students to think hard ... about their own capacities before they daydream of completing a whole series of courses online," Burgan said.

The AAUP has taken a guarded, if not altogether skeptical, approach to online teaching. Burgan admits that single courses in limited numbers can benefit students and working professionals, but she doesn't think whole degrees should be earned online.

On the other hand, Gary Miller, Penn State's vice president of distance education, says that online instruction is just now coming into its own. While Miller doesn't believe that every course can be taught online, he speaks quite optimistically about the future of online education.

"It's not just a way of presenting content, but a revolution in our ability to bring people together around ideas in new ways," Miller said. "Radio, TV and film didn't allow us to do that, but the Web does."