EdTech Does It Online at Pepperdine University

As a middle-aged educational professional you've decided to finally pursue that dream of an advanced degree. But you have a job and other responsibilities and you canít move near the university that offers you the best program for your interests (not to mention the best financial package!). D'es this mean you canít pursue those dreams?

Today, technology is bringing changes to the university campus that do allow you to pursue these dreams. The ìvirtual universityî is here and with it has come a new concept of how professional development and life-long learning might be delivered.

But in the process of changing how universities offer programs to the life-long learner we have to learn how to best use the technology, rather than simply placing it into existing models of university education, or even of todayís concept of distance learning.

What Will a Virtual University Look Like?

The words ìvirtual universityî imply the concept of a learning ìcampusî without walls or physical spaces where students may never meet each other face to face. But John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid respond: ìWe Ö doubt that the university will dissolve into cyberspace so easily.î[1]

Technology d'es offer appealing alternatives for providing life-long learning opportunities to those for whom a traditional university setting d'es not work. University administrators, as Brown and Duguid say, are being pushed by the attractiveness of low-cost, technologically mediated teaching ìin the direction of maximum distance, minimum cost, and a virtual university.î[1]

But perhaps neither ìvirtualî nor ìuniversityî are the right models for what students need. Sherry Turkle talks about liminality in Life on the Screen.[2] This concept, first introduced by the anthropologist Victor Turner, means a moment when things are betwixt and between. Turkle says that todayís liminality may not be temporary. We will move among and between many models of learning, exploring those most appropriate for the time, the learner and the technology.

Brown and Duguid, as well as Chris Dede, suggest we are shifting from the knowledge-delivery model used in both traditional learning and in todayís distance learning models, to the creation of distributed learning communities. However, unless approached thoughtfully, Brown and Duguid argue, universities ìrisk making inaccessible all the valuable insights into communities that students previously gathered by default.î

ìTo succeed, distributed learning must balance virtual and direct interaction in sustaining communion among people,î says Chris Dede. ìA relationship based only on telephone conversation lacks the vibrancy that face-to-face interchange provides. Similarly while digital video will broaden the bandwidth of virtual interactions on information infrastructures, teleconferencing will never completely substitute for direct personal contact. We can expect a variety of social inventions to emerge that provide the best of both worlds.î[3]

Pepperdine University's Transition

Pepperdine Universityís Graduate School of Education and Psychology, in the fall of 1995, began offering a doctoral program in Educational Technology.[4] This innovative program combines face-to-face sessions with online communication in a manner uniquely suited to the mid-career professional. Face-to-face sessions are held three times during a trimester, primarily on weekends. One week of class is held on weeknights per trimester. The remaining required hours are spent in online meetings. One group of students is admitted per year and that track follows a prescribed sequence of coursework over a two-year period.

Pepperdineís Graduate School of Education and Psychology is located in Culver City, California. In the past, students in the education doctoral program resided primarily in the Los Angeles basin. In its first year, the Educational Technology doctoral program attracted students from as far away as Vanderhoof, British Columbia. Approximately half of the class d'es not reside in the Los Angeles area. In addition, several of the students travel frequently for their jobs so they come online for class from throughout the U.S.

The online class sessions use a variety of telecommunication vehicles. Groups of students meet for discussions either in America Online chat rooms or in MOOs (Multi-user Object Oriented environments) maintained at Pepperdine. In this environment, participants not only communicate and collaborate with one another, they also ìcreate their environmentî by using simple MOO programming commands. In addition, students contribute frequently to newsgroups so that ìdiscussionî continues asynchronously.

One unique environment that has been used is Co-Motion, an interactive Web site from Bitt-co Solutions, Inc., which is designed to measure group consensus on issues. Students carry on dialogue with other students and professors via e-mail as well. Research is done primarily via the Internet. Student projects frequently include the creation of Web pages in addition to traditional papers. Student work is submitted to professors via e-mail as well.

What Was Learned From the First Year

The experience at Pepperdine thus far confirms the continued need for face-to-face sessions. While students and professors became more proficient over time at using the telecommunications vehicles, there continued to be a comfort derived from the physical contact of face to face. In fact, during the times when students were not physically on campus they often felt the need ìto reach out and touch someoneî via telephone to get that extra expression the intonation of the voice offers, something difficult to capture in online ìtext-onlyî dialogue.

However, for some, communicating online was easier than face-to-face dialogue. And there was a distinct change in ìpersonalityî for some. During early sessions in the MOO where students used aliases rather than their real names, it was sometimes difficult to determine someoneís identity even though everyone had met face to face. Some who easily communicated face to face found online contact more difficult due to limited typing skills. That is one reason why it is beneficial to have both synchronous discussions (chat rooms, MOOs) and asynchronous discussions (newsgroups).

One of the lessons learned early in the first trimester was the necessity of limiting group size for online discussion sessions. After a few attempts at discussions involving 22 students simultaneously, this format was revised. Students then met typically in groups of four to eight for at most an hour and a half. Sometimes the meeting times were staggered, to allow the professor to participate in all sessions. Other times students met in specially designed ìroomsî in the MOO that allowed the professor to ìmoveî from group to group.

One of the more interesting findings of the first year was the quality and depth of the discussion that took place in newsgroups. ìI think it has something to do with the text being present before your eyes,î said one participant. ìSpoken words sort of dissolve, and are often incorrectly recalled anyhow.î

Students indicated that they liked the time to reflect on ideas before responding to them. Synchronous discussions required a speed of response and an attentiveness that was demanding. The combination of germinating ideas in synchronous discussions and following through with more in-depth asynchronous discussions became a trend as the year progressed.

Studentsí methods of doing research also changed. As they used the Internet more, they reported being faced with learning how to better narrow and categorize their searches than traditional library searches had required. They had to learn when to stop an Internet search before it became all consuming (a lot of late nights were spent learning this lesson). On the other hand, the Internet allowed them to escape the time boundaries that library hours had imposed on their research in the past.

The program also benefited from being able to access experts online who would normally not be available for a face-to-face class. Dr. Ben Shneiderman, University of Maryland, and Dr. Don Norman, Apple Computer, Inc., both participated in the program by answering e-mail inquiries from students during a designated time period. Attempts to set up synchronous discussions online were unsuccessful due to scheduling conflicts. It became clear that it was important for the expert to participate when it was convenient in their schedule.

The students and faculty in the first year program both report the development of a sense of a learning community. For the students in this program at Pepperdine, they feel they have moved from what Brown and Duguid call the ìchatting classesî to becoming a ìdistributed learning communityî in the way Dede defines it.

The Future

As with any new pedagogy, we need to learn how to best maximize the new opportunities technology provides. This means more than just learning what not to do (deliver a lecture online). It also means designing new ways of learning that fully utilize these new capabilities.

The brave new world of university learning, as seen in the experience at Pepperdine, will be neither entirely virtual nor entirely grounded in the physical campus. Thinking outside these bounds, new worlds of learning count on both community and communion, whether fostered by face-to-face encounters or by technology-mediated communication.

Sue Talley is a doctoral student in the Educational Technology program at Pepperdine University. She also works with the National Center on Education and the Economy, dealing with issues of performance assessment, standards and school reform. During the 1980s she worked for Apple Computer at its corporate headquarters in Cupertino, Calif.

E-mail: [email protected]


  1. Brown, J.S. and Duguid, P. (1996), ìSpace for the Chatting Classes, The Times Higher Education Supplement Internet Service. [Online] www.newsint.co.uk/MULTIMEDIA/seely.html
  2. Turkle, S. (1995), Life on the Screen, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
  3. Dede, C. (1996), ìEmerging Technologies and Distributed Learning, for publication in The American Journal of Distance Education. [Online] www.virtual.gmu.edu/ajdepdf.htm

Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology, Educational Technology Doctoral Program [Online] moon.pepperdine.edu/gsep/edtech/home.html

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.