Reading, Writing and the Web
San Diego resident Bob George's first college class usually starts around 5 a.m. in the morning. Not that he minds. In fact, that's one of his favorite times to log on. George is pursuing a master's degree in education through a Web-based distance learning program (www.online.csuhayward.edu/Ms/gradon.html) offered by California State University, Hayward. Like many other busy people, the construction consultant and part-time instructor doesn't have time to travel to a classroom."I really couldn't have done it in a regular classroom. There just isn't time. I'm a busy guy. I have a lot of things going on," George says."Whenever I have time to get on the Net, I can attend class."George has experience on both sides of the virtual podium, as he teaches online courses for Hayward's sister institution, California State University-San Marcos, on such subjects as on blueprint reading and construction supervision.Internet-based distance education is a great way for people to enjoy the benefits of higher education from their own homes. As critics have noted, Internet distance learning is not a replacement for regular classroom-based learning, but for those who live too far from campus or are too busy to attend regular classes, Web-based learning may be the answer.Distance education itself has been around for centuries, although in these days of hyperactivity and workaholic schedules, it is quickly becoming a large part of universities and other educational institutions. According to the National Center For Education Statistics, as of 1995, a third of the institutions it sampled offered distance education courses, with another quarter planning to offer such courses in the next three years. The Globe wide Network Academy (www.gnacademy.org), a database of online courses, for instance, lists more than 17,000 available courses, from associate level courses to PhD programs. Distance education can run the gamut from print correspondence, to audio tapes, to teleconferencing, to the Web-based programs.Courses offered through the Web can offer an immediacy and flexibility not offered by other mediums. Students can read course lectures on a Web site, post their questions on a bulletin board or E-mail the professor. The class may agree to meet at one particular time (and time zone) to hold a class-based online chat. While some courses require the student to be near the campus in order to have occasional face-to-face interaction with the instructor, many others do not. "Our students could be in Shanghai and take our courses," says Louis Berney, director of media relations for University of Baltimore, which offers an MBA through a Web-based program (www.ubonline.edu).Many, if not most, colleges offer some form of Web-based distance learning, and with a bit of searching students can find a program that offers instruction in the area they are interested in. Penn State's World Campus (www.worldcampus.psu.edu/) registers more than 19,000 people a year for everything from classes in electrical engineering to a certificate program in chemical dependency counselor education. The University of Illinois (www.online.uillinois.edu) offers seven degree programs at the bachelor's, masters and certificate levels, with over 130 courses. University of Phoenix (www.uophx.edu) is based in San Francisco and has, at present, 61,000 students worldwide in an extensive variety of programs. There are other organizations that offer Web-only learning, but seekers should be careful to choose an institution that's been fully accredited. A good guide for this selection can be found on Degree.Net Book's resources page (www.degree.net/distance-learning/education/guides.html) as well as with the Department of Education's Distance Learning Resource Network (Distance Learning Frequently Asked Questions: (www.wested.org/hyper-discussions/dlfaq/).Recently, online distance learning has come under criticism for a variety of reasons. One area of concern for instructors are the economics behind the push to place as much course material online as possible. This was the subject of a much circulated essay by historian David Noble titled "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education," published in the online peer review journal First Monday in January 1998 (www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue3_1/noble/index.html).In this essay, Noble takes to task the efforts of universities to take the work of their faculty and sell it in commercial form as videos, courseware, CD-ROMs and Web sites. Universities and colleges are being influenced by network hardware, software and "content" companies such as Microsoft, Disney, and Simon and Schuster, all of whom, Noble charges, view "education as a market for their wares."What is the problem with the commercialization of education? Hasn't education always been underfunded, and won't distance-learning bring more revenues?"With the commercialization of instruction, teachers as labor are drawn into a production process designed for the efficient creation of instructional commodities," Noble writes. "As in other industries, the technology is being deployed by management primarily to discipline, de-skill and displace labor."Noble predicts that the roles of professors and instructors may be vastly reduced in the university system. He notes The New School in New York hires contractors, mostly unemployed PhDs, to design online courses. "The designers are not hired as employees but are simply paid a modest flat fee and are required to surrender to the university all rights to their course," Noble says."Quality higher education will not disappear entirely, but it will soon become the exclusive preserve of the privileged, available only to children of the rich and the powerful. For the rest of us a dismal new era of higher education has dawned. In 10 years, we will look upon the wired remains of our once great democratic higher education system and wonder how we let it happen. That is, unless we decide now not to let it happen," Noble concludes.Rob Kling and Noriko Hara, both of Indiana University, have noted concerns for Web-based students. In their paper "Students' Frustrations with a Web-Based Distance Education Course: A Taboo Topic in the Discourse" which is currently under review at the American Educational Research Journal (a working draft is available at (www.slis.indiana.edu/CSI/wp99_01.html), they noted many distance learning students had felt frustration and isolation while taking courses. From interviews and observations the two had found that students were frequently frustrated by technological problems, such as the computers not working properly or the lack of immediate feedback or ambiguous instructions from the professor. As such, Kling and Hara note, this frustration can cause students to feel isolated. A lone learner may not have peers to commiserate with, or the physical presence of an instructor to help them work through difficulties.While Kling sees value in Web-based courses, he also sees where, if students aren't careful, they won't enjoy the full-benefits. For one, there's the danger of Web courses being too flexible."Students may be at work, trying to slip in an online discussion during working hours," Kling said in a recent phone interview. "They may be at home during the evening, trying to do some of the computer work at home when therE are other things going on...they may have a spouse that wants to talk with them, children who want their attention," Kling says.One of the advantages of traveling to a classroom is that it forces students to devote a set period of time each week to only learn. This is not a given in Web-based instruction. "The reality is that students are not studying when they are fresh. Many of them may be studying for breakfast or late at night before bed, or they're slipping in free time during work and during their lunch break. So this one course is not the only thing going on in their lives," Kling says. As a result, a student may not put the same concentration into a distance learning course as he or she would in a regular course.Nonetheless, students like Bob George feel Web-based learning has advantages that can't be enjoyed in the traditional classroom. "In a traditional class, you raise your hand and you make a comment. It's off the cuff and that's the end of it. In a Web course, you have to sit down and write something. The business of writing everything you say takes a little bit longer, so you put more thought in it, too, so it's not just off the cuff," says George.By taking courses online, George doesn't feel he's missing out on the social element. "For kids just out of college, that may very well be something that is important. These kids are learning how to interact socially. With adults, that really isn't the case." George also points out that in a Web class, one can actually get to know more fellow students who can help one through tough spots. "If the teacher does a good job of building an online community, then you really get to know people. In a traditional class, you get to know the person who sits next to you, and the one person in class who asks all the questions. But in the online classes you tend not to get to know all these people."As for campus life, it's something George can do without: "I've been there, done that," he says. "I'm into this because I want a degree. The less fooling around I have to do to get it, the better off I am."