The online campus and the Academy


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The online campus and the Academy

Bobby Neal Winters

No one could ignore the affect the Internet has had on scholarly communication. Scholars on opposite sides of the planet can communicate as never before. This has allowed for collaboration that would never otherwise have occurred. Collaboration can occur by e-mail, by websites, through discussion boards, through chat rooms, by instant messaging, and so forth. Text can be exchanged, PDF files, videos, jpegs, mpegs, mp3, tiffs etc, etc, etc. There is an alphabet soup of technical means available for communication.

At the Academy, this has spilled over from research into the classroom. (That sentence is hopelessly incomplete as very few techniques went directly from research to the classroom. Most technology in the classroom came from other places such as business and entertainment.)

Regardless of the source of these technological techniques which have entered into the classroom, they have enhanced our ability to communicate.
There have been two modes applying these new technologies. One of these has been technology and the Internet as a supplement to what happens in the classroom, and the other has been in the form of online courses as a replacement for what goes on in the classroom.

When spice is added to a food, it does not change the nutritional content, but it will entice the diner to eat more and enjoy the meal to a greater extent. I believe that technology, when used correctly, can have the same effect on a class. While it would be incorrect to characterize online courses as being entirely spice, I believe they are missing some of the essential ingredients for a maximally actualized learning experience.

Let me speak to this.

The human is a social animal. The classroom creates a social learning situation. If online courses are to tap in to this same human social mechanisms, they must attempt to simulate this. This is an important point, so let’s not allow it to slip by. The technologies are available to simulate all of the various human interactions that go on in a classroom, but regardless of how well they are implemented they are still simulations.

I am convinced it can be done well given the right teachers, the right infrastructure, the right support staff, and the right students, but it is still the face to face classroom that should serve as the ideal which is to be modeled.

Let me go further. Face-to-face interaction across the meeting table, around the water cooler, or in front of the coffee pot should still be the ideal to be strived for among faculty. In a pinch—among those who take their time and have the requisite skill—e-mail can do the job. However, subtleties are easily missed, tone is difficult to convey, and it is easier for some folks just to let the meeting sit in their inbox. The phone is better, but facial expression, which can do much to convey nuance, is lost. Video conference would be better, but it still falls short of the ideal.

That having been said, there are issues related to communicating across this campus—from Russ Hall to the KTC to pick a random example—which some sort of enhanced video conferencing might alleviate.

The technology for communication among faculty should be used in the same way it should for our classes: As a spice when everyone is present and as a means for those to take part who otherwise couldn’t.

Right now, every faculty member on campus has a computer on his desk, just like the telephone. As anyone who has a teenager knows, though the telephone is indispensable to modern existence, it is also a magnificent device to aid in the wasting of time. The computer takes that to the nth power in both cases. We cannot live without it, but it can waste our time like nothing else can. One can get involved in chat rooms, message boards, and just surfing the web all to the detriment of work. Let’s not even talk about those who surf porn on the job—good grief!

This aspect of technology can cause us to be even more isolated from our colleagues by shutting us away in our offices.

We could sit around and cluck about this, but it is a part of our current reality. It is here, it is now, and it has to be dealt with. We can’t get away from the use of technology so we must learn to use it properly—a seasoning, not a main dish; a means to enable participation and not the thing itself.
Just some thoughts on a Friday evening.