Digital Classrooms: Some Myths About Developing New Educational Programs Using the Internet


Faculty have expressedgrowing interest in teaching via the Internet among universityfaculty members. The Internet has been variously characterized as an"efficient" means of communication,[1] an "impersonal"environment for distance education[2] and a "flat" medium forwidely distributed control and decision-making.[3] Severallargely unproven assumptions underlie these descriptions, and forthat reason computer-mediated work and learning environments meritfurther investigation. To date, the literature on electronic ordigital learning environments using networked computers and groupwarein particular is not well developed.

This paper describes theexperiences of a teacher in a new Master's Program in OrganizationalDesign and Effectiveness (ODE) launched successfully by the FieldingInstitute in Santa Barbara, Calif., in January 1997. The programillustrates innovative, high quality approaches to adult education,which makes it an especially interesting case study. This case offersa means of exploring some myths and assumptions regarding digitalclassrooms and the Internet as well as providing insights and lessonsfor educators and institutions wishing to explore teaching andlearning in this new medium.

With the exception ofone-week, face-to-face orientation and planning sessions, theFielding ODE program is delivered entirely via computer-mediatedinstruction employing the Internet and the World Wide Web. The authorserved as a consultant to the program from its inception; assisted inthe concept development, curriculum design and marketing phases priorto the program's official start; and subsequently served as a memberof the faculty teaching one of the required core courses in thecurriculum, Human Development and Leadership, as well as an"event-based seminar" in Virtual Leadership. The Fielding ODE programis an exemplary program, having been awarded special recognition bythe American Council on Education and the Council for Adult andExperiential Learning.

Members of the chartercohort of students include independent consultants, a general managerfor global strategy development in the communication industry, thechief executive officer for a North American trade union, a pair ofinformation systems and business process consultants sent by alliancepartners, directors of training and development for transnationalorganizations, and educators involved in large-scale social changeprojects. Now, as the program enters its second year, all of theparticipants, including members of a second and third cohort ofstudents, are actively involved in interactive online seminars abouttheory and practice that span the geographic boundaries of Europe,Canada, the USA, South Africa and Asia.

The Fielding Institutefaculty is committed to building a global community of lifelonglearners. At the same time, the faculty is committed to maintainingthe intimate scale of these conversations. This means maintaining astudent to faculty ratio of 8:1 in the electronic seminars. This alsomeans developing a faculty skilled at facilitating online groups andhelping program participants develop real-time solutions to real-lifebusiness problems. Fielding employs gifted scholar-practitionersaround the world. High standards are maintained in this highlyinteractive, individualized approach to guided practice.

A FocusedCurriculum

The importance ofdesigning curriculum and technology in tandem is underscored by theFielding experience. The curriculum for the Master's degree ispositioned on the intersection of organizational design, electroniccommunication and cross-cultural issues that grow out of itsstudents, their communities and places of work. A focused curriculumoffers opportunities to explore demanding challenges facingorganizations today: human and cultural difference, electroniccommunication, group dynamics and globalization. There is balancebetween the "hard" theory and research that professionals need andthe "soft" skills provided by leadership and group process trainingand interactive learning in small teams. Core courses and seminarsare delivered worldwide via the Internet. Event-based seminars arejust-in-time elective courses designed around real problems andopportunities, with student-generated topics as "living" casestudies.

The program is anintensive 20-month experience. Generally, students spend 10 to 15hours per week on their studies. They are advised to check into theirelectronic seminars at least twice a week. Faculty provide detailedassignments and guidelines for participation. Collaboration withother students may involve reading and responding to their work andreceiving feedback from them in threaded conversations. There arealso opportunities for discussion leadership, critiques, simulationsand role-play. The program includes the opportunity to develop trulymarketable intellectual property in students' culminating Master'stheses projects. Other components include a capstone seminar, "GrandRounds," which allowed students to shadow internationally recognizedconsultants to industry and to exhibit their work in the SanFrancisco Bay area.

The program begins with aninitial one-week face-to face session required of all participants,regardless of geographic home base and travel time. At theseorientation and planning sessions, students and faculty have a chanceto meet one another and to obtain a general orientation to theprogram. Faculty conduct small group sessions, introducing studentsto learning objectives, course content, expectations and group norms.There are opportunities for clarifications, questions and answers aswell as team-building sessions. Polaroid photos are taken and shared.Opportunities to purchase texts via online booksellers areexplained.

An important aspect of theweek's activities is the introductory training in the Fieldingeducational software, FELIX, an adaptation of Alta Vista forumsoftware in a password-protected intranet. Students also obtainadvice and assistance in configuring their own hardware and softwarefor optimal Internet access, e-mail and search functions with a Webbrowser. Each student's entering computer skills and proficiencylevel are assessed in a user-friendly atmosphere withservice-oriented professional staff. Every effort is made to ward offpossible technical problems with up-front technical support andpractice sessions before students return home to work on their own.Of course, technical assistance remains available to students andfaculty throughout each term. An especially attractive feature of theFielding operation is the "human face" of the technical supportstaff, who are outgoing and friendly people possessing both technicalexpertise and strong interpersonal skills. They are accessible tostudents by telephone, fax, e-mail, the FELIX forum and other methodsalmost around the clock.

The EfficiencyMyth

There are many myths andtacit assumptions about computer-mediated learning that can beexplored in the Fielding context. Much has been written abouttechnological efficiency and the potential of the Internet as aneducational medium to save time and money or increase productivity.The author's experience inspires a healthy skepticism in this regard.Having taught students in conventional classrooms for two decades, Iexperienced the computer-mediated mode of instruction as moretime-consuming, at least initially, both from the standpoint ofup-front course design and later, painstaking, labor intensive hoursonline - designing messages for the classroom forum, reading anddownloading from the screen, posting new material, providingfeedback, checking community bulletin boards, e-mailing studentcomments and grade reports, etc. In fact, there were many times whenI felt torn between my real life and my virtual life on-screen, in anidentity challenging "Turklesque"[4] sort of way, simplybecause there did not seem to exist enough hours in the day to dojustice to both. This was the case even in an "asynchronous"environment where I had the flexibility to conduct electronic officehours in my bathrobe over morning coffee or post feedback in the deadof night.

Moreover, absentface-to-face contact and ordinary non-verbal clues, even very maturestudents on the Internet demand more frequent interaction andreassurance in dialogue with their professors, an observationconfirmed in student course evaluations. Students demand morefeedback; and the more feedback they receive, the more interactionthey want. There are at least two possible interpretations of thisphenomenon: One is that it reflects the way students compensate forthe lack of face-to-face interaction. Or, it may be that this mediumdisinhibits student communication, thereby stimulating the messageexchange process. As the intellectual excitement of theseconversations grows, so d'es the amount of interactivity in thevirtual community.[5]

I estimate this mode ofinstruction requires roughly 40% to 50% more work on the teacher'spart in comparison with conventional classroom delivery. For example,where I might put approximately 36 hours of work per week routinelyinto a regular course load with a total of 120 students in fourtraditional class sections at a large public university, onlineinstruction at Fielding required 50 hours or more per week - withonly 24 students in just three sections of my digital classes. Italso takes longer for faculty members and administrators to reachconsensus in electronic group meetings.

The economics of thissituation are fundamentally different when the educational product isa premium one, delivered to a select group of adult professionals,many of whom receive corporate reimbursement for their tuition.Moreover, teaching online is far more intense and absorbing from theinstructor's point of view and, therefore, simultaneously moreexhilarating and more exhausting mentally. The amount of mentaleffort expended can be tremendous. Meanwhile, the economic efficiencyof this model of instruction is clearly contingent upon institutionalassumptions. As others have observed,[6,7,8] the neweducational paradigm shifts the old definition of productivity ascost per hour of instruction per student to a new definition ofproductivity as cost per unit of learning per student. This paradigmshift d'es not address directly the issue of the market value of theuniversity professor's productive labor as a knowledge worker in thisnew medium. I predict the issue of the valuation of faculty expertiseonline will grow in importance in the near future.

The Myth ofImpersonality

Another myth onefrequently encounters about computer-mediated instruction is that ofimpersonality. People assume that in the absence of face-to-faceinteraction, relations automatically become more distant andimpersonal. Traditional distance learning formats are said to beplagued with this problem.[9] Not so, in my experience withthe interactive digital classroom. There is a type of intimacyachievable between teachers and students in this medium that is quiteextraordinary, reminiscent of what Sproull and Keisler refer to as"second-level" social effects of the technology. I believe thisintimacy results from a sense of shared control and responsibility,commitment to collaboration and dialogue, and increased willingnessto take risks in communications with others online. The verbal andwriting-intensive nature of the text-based forum network also forcesone to make one's thoughts very explicit whenever possible; there islittle room for subtlety. As one administrator put it: "In an onlineenvironment, words matter.... Words are everything."

Also, it takes longer forgroups to reach consensus in brain-storming and problem-solvingsituations online.[10] People's feelings can be hurt easily,so more time and effort are put into explaining meanings andsupplying detailed contextual background to enhance mutualunderstanding. Thus, writers get to know one another intimately overtime while computer-mediated conversations - both formal and informal- unfold. Neither e-mail nor chat, the forum classroom environment atFielding calls for and inspires thoughtful, composed (after readingand reflection) asynchronous networked interactions, withoutsacrificing human warmth.

At this stage in theevolution of Internet educational technology, we are all learners.There is also a sense that we are innovators and early adopters who"crossed over" early in the technology transfer and diffusionprocess.[11] In the Fielding culture, this pioneer experiencehas come to be known as riding the waves, or embracing the"turbulence" of rough seas - a metaphor for global and organizationalunrest as well. The attention given to group process online and thethoughtful nature of master's-level conversations establish anintimacy within the group, belying the myth ofimpersonality.

The FlatnessMyth

This technology, so oftenreferred to as "flat," in reality supplies depth and texture to thedigital classroom experience. The myth of a flat medium ismisconstrued to mean something other than what the term wasoriginally intended to denote - that is, "a kind of organizationalflattening...that did not necessarily follow hierarchical lines ofmanagement".[12] The decentralized control - or"cyber-democracy" - some have touted as characteristic of the onlinevirtual community is a notion that is now challenged by othercritics,[13] but finds perhaps its best expression in thisnetworked educational environment.

Posting to a forum orwriting a message in this medium may involve several layers ofmessage creation and feedback. These are actually multi-dimensionalthreaded conversations. Typically in the digital classroom someone,either the teacher or a student, posts a "topic" to which others"reply." One may also "reply to the replies" and so on, with athreaded conversation emerging from these related messages. Forexample, in my leadership course the first assignment required eachstudent to write and to post at the topic level an autobiographicalessay. Students read one another's essays and reacted in reply toeach individual essay. Also in this course there were weeklydiscussion topics on various aspects of leadership tied to theassigned readings, and I posted these topics. Every student wasexpected to reply at least once, but many responded more frequentlywith additional postings.

A different type ofclassroom structure is illustrated by my elective course on virtualleadership. Here the case study format was adopted instead, andstudents were expected to research and write their own cases. Eachstudent was assigned a content area related to virtual work groupsand one week of the term for posting his or her case. The otherstudents analyzed problems and opportunities and developed casesolutions that were posted as replies under the weekly study topic.The students took turns moderating these conversations and the weeklymoderator assumed primary responsibility for synthesizing the keypoints in a final summary posting for that week. Obviously, this is alot to keep track of, and, fortunately, there are software utilitiesto assist with monitoring the flow of messages. The instructor's rolegenerally is to facilitate discussion, to provide feedback andclosure, and to insert supplemental and transitional material whereneeded.

Key Lessons

Several important lessonstaken away from this experience in digital classrooms tend to revolvearound the challenge to traditional classroom schemes. The lessons ofthe Fielding ODE program include remembering the critical function ofdesigning the technology to fit the desired learning outcomes and notvice versa. Too often institutions buy into an infrastructure ofhardware and software that constrains, rather than enhances, thelearning experience. In this case, the two seem well-matched withoutthe cart leading the horse, so to speak. Another valuable lesson forany type of technological start-up operation is to expect turbulenceand, if possible, embrace it the way Fielding has by incorporating itinto the language and culture of the institution. This is arisk-taking enterprise and one should expect the unexpected, whilelearning to ride the waves of change.

There are also lessonsabout the sorts of people best-suited to this undertaking. There is atechnology adoption curve that permits innovators and early adoptersto "cross the chasm" sooner than other, more conservative orreluctant educators.[14] The Fielding case study providessome indicators of individual characteristics for achieving successfor both students and teachers in these digital classrooms.Interestingly, many of the identified characteristics are similar tothose attributed to successful telecommuters[15] and totoday's so-called consumer-oriented adult learners who shop forcourses tailored to their particular interests. Students who are mostlikely to succeed are described as:

  • Independent, active learners;
  • People who enjoy working alone;
  • Those who can structure and manage time well;
  • Accomplished, busy professionals;
  • Students with superior verbal ability;
  • Risk-taking, creative problem solvers;
  • Individuals committed to peers and the group process; and
  • People who are comfortable with asynchronous rhythms.

Research has shown thatuniversity-level students participating in distance learning aretypically older and married, have children and are often jugglingtheir school, work and family responsibilities.[16]Fielding's students are no exceptions.

Likewise, successfulfaculty members able to teach well and enjoy working in the digitalnetworked learning environment are described as:

  • Serious, lifelong learners;
  • Teachers favoring experimental and collaborative styles;
  • Those who enjoy up-front conceptual work;
  • Skilled group process facilitators;
  • Teachers who make expectations explicit;
  • Those who construct evaluation/assessment schemes;
  • Providers of detailed, developmental feedback; and
  • People willing to give feedback at frequent intervals.

Teaching on the Internetrequires large amounts of time and a well-planned course design andpermits faculty to translate their style into a new format whichshould add value to student learning.[17] The Fielding ODEMaster's Program afforded me this opportunity to learn along with mystudents in a very stimulating setting.

Barbara Mahone Brown is a founding faculty member of the ODE Master'sDegree Program at the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif. Sheserves on the marketing faculty at San Jose State University and asthe president of her own firm, Elbow Room Consulting. Brown earnedher M.B.A. from the University of Chicago and her Ph.D. from StanfordUniversity. E-mail: [email protected]


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This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.