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

Each student's entering computer skills and proficiency level are assessed in a user-friendly atmosphere with service-oriented professional staff.

Faculty have expressed growing interest in teaching via the Internet among university faculty 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 for widely distributed control and decision-making.[3] Several largely unproven assumptions underlie these descriptions, and for that reason computer-mediated work and learning environments merit further investigation. To date, the literature on electronic or digital learning environments using networked computers and groupware in particular is not well developed.

This paper describes the experiences of a teacher in a new Master's Program in Organizational Design and Effectiveness (ODE) launched successfully by the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., in January 1997. The program illustrates innovative, high quality approaches to adult education, which makes it an especially interesting case study. This case offers a means of exploring some myths and assumptions regarding digital classrooms and the Internet as well as providing insights and lessons for educators and institutions wishing to explore teaching and learning in this new medium.

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

Members of the charter cohort of students include independent consultants, a general manager for global strategy development in the communication industry, the chief executive officer for a North American trade union, a pair of information systems and lousiness process consultants sent by alliance partners, directors of training and development for transnational organizations, and educators involved in large-scale social change projects. Now, as the program enters its second year, all of the participants, including members of a second and third cohort of students, are actively involved in interactive online seminars about theory and practice that span the geographic boundaries of Europe, Canada, the USA, South Africa and Asia.

The Fielding Institute faculty is committed to building a global community of lifelong learners. At the same time, the faculty is committed to maintaining the intimate scale of these conversations. This means maintaining a student to faculty ratio of 8:1 in the electronic seminars. This also means developing a faculty skilled at facilitating online groups and helping program participants develop real-time solutions to real-life business problems. Fielding employs gifted scholar-practitioners around the world. High standards are maintained in this highly interactive, individualized approach to guided practice.

A Focused Curriculum

The importance of designing curriculum and technology in tandem is underscored by the Fielding experience. The curriculum for the Master's degree is positioned on the intersection of organizational design, electronic communication and cross-cultural issues that grow out of its students, their communities and places of work. A focused curriculum offers opportunities to explore demanding challenges facing organizations today: human and cultural difference, electronic communication, group dynamics and globalization. There is balance between the "hard" theory and research that professionals need and the "soft" skills provided by leadership and group process training and interactive learning in small teams. Core courses and seminars are delivered worldwide via the Internet. Event-based seminars are just-in-time elective courses designed around real problems and opportunities, with student-generated topics as "living" case studies.

The program is an intensive 20-month experience. Generally, students spend 10 to 15 hours per week on their studies. They are advised to check into their electronic seminars at least twice a week. Faculty provide detailed assignments and guidelines for participation. Collaboration with other students may involve reading and responding to their work and receiving feedback from them in threaded conversations. There are also opportunities for discussion leadership, critiques, simulations and role-play. The program includes the opportunity to develop truly marketable intellectual property in students' culminating Master's theses projects. Other components include a capstone seminar, "Grand Rounds," which allowed students to shadow internationally recognized consultants to industry and to exhibit their work in the San Francisco Bay area.

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

An important aspect of the week's activities is the introductory training in the Fielding educational software, FELIX, an adaptation of Alta Vista forum software in a password-protected intranet. Students also obtain advice and assistance in configuring their own hardware and software for optimal Internet access, e-mail and search functions with a Web browser. Each student's entering computer skills and proficiency level are assessed in a user-friendly atmosphere with service-oriented professional staff. Every effort is made to ward off possible technical problems with up-front technical support and practice sessions before students return home to work on their own. Of course, technical assistance remains available to students and faculty throughout each term. An especially attractive feature of the Fielding operation is the "human face" of the technical support staff, who are outgoing and friendly people possessing both technical expertise and strong interpersonal skills. They are accessible to students by telephone, fax, e-mail, the FELIX forum and other methods almost around the clock.

The Efficiency Myth

There are many myths and tacit assumptions about computer-mediated learning that can be explored in the Fielding context. Much has been written about technological efficiency and the potential of the Internet as an educational 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, I experienced the computer-mediated mode of instruction as more time-consuming, at least initially, both from the standpoint of up-front course design and later, painstaking, labor intensive hours online -- designing messages for the classroom forum, reading and downloading from the screen, posting new material, providing feedback, checking community bulletin boards, e-mailing student comments and grade reports, etc. In fact, there were many times when I felt torn between my real life and my virtual life on-screen, in an identity challenging "Turklesque"[4] sort of way, simply because there did not seem to exist enough hours in the day to do justice to both. This was the case even in an "asynchronous" environment where I had the flexibility to conduct electronic office hours in my bathrobe over morning coffee or post feedback in the dead of night.

Moreover, absent face-to-face contact and ordinary non-verbal clues, even very mature students on the Internet demand more frequent interaction and reassurance in dialogue with their professors, an observation confirmed in student course evaluations. Students demand more feedback; and the more feedback they receive, the more interaction they want. There are at least two possible interpretations of this phenomenon: One is that it reflects the way students compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction. Or, it may be that this medium disinhibits student communication, thereby stimulating the message exchange process. As the intellectual excitement of these conversations grows, so does the amount of interactivity in the virtual community.[5]

I estimate this mode of instruction requires roughly 40% to 50% more work on the teacher's part in comparison with conventional classroom delivery. For example, where I might put approximately 36 hours of work per week routinely into a regular course load with a total of 120 students in four traditional class sections at a large public university, online instruction at Fielding required 50 hours or more per week -- with only 24 students in just three sections of my digital classes. It also takes longer for faculty members and administrators to reach consensus in electronic group meetings.

The economics of this situation are fundamentally different when the educational product is a 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 the instructor's point of view and, therefore, simultaneously more exhilarating and more exhausting mentally. The amount of mental effort expended can be tremendous. Meanwhile, the economic efficiency of this model of instruction is clearly contingent upon institutional assumptions. As others have observed,[6,7,8] the new educational paradigm shifts the old definition of productivity as cost per hour of instruction per student to a new definition of productivity as cost per unit of learning per student. This paradigm shift does not address directly the issue of the market value of the university professor's productive labor as a knowledge worker in this new medium. I predict the issue of the valuation of faculty expertise online will grow in importance in the near future.

The Myth of Impersonality

Another myth one frequently encounters about computer-mediated instruction is that of impersonality. People assume that in the absence of face-to-face interaction, relations automatically become more distant and impersonal. Traditional distance learning formats are said to be plagued with this problem.[9] Not so, in my experience with the interactive digital classroom. There is a type of intimacy achievable between teachers and students in this medium that is quite extraordinary, reminiscent of what Sproull and Keisler refer to as "second-level" social effects of the technology. I believe this intimacy results from a sense of shared control and responsibility, commitment to collaboration and dialogue, and increased willingness to take risks in communications with others online. The verbal and writing-intensive nature of the text-based forum network also forces one to make one's thoughts very explicit whenever possible; there is little room for subtlety. As one administrator put it: "In an online environment, words matter.... Words are everything."

Also, it takes longer for groups to reach consensus in brain-storming and problem-solving situations online.[10] People's feeling can be hurt easily, so more time and effort are put into explaining meanings and supplying detailed contextual background to enhance mutual understanding. Thus, writers get to know one another intimately over time while computer-mediated conversations -- both formal and informal -- unfold. Neither e-mail nor chat, the forum classroom environment at Fielding calls for and inspires thoughtful, composed (after reading and reflection) asynchronous networked interactions, without sacrificing human warmth.

At this stage in the evolution 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 diffusion process.[11] In the Fielding culture, this pioneer experience has come to be known as riding the waves, or embracing the "turbulence" of rough seas -- a metaphor for global and organizational unrest as well. The attention given to group process online and the thoughtful nature of master's-level conversations establish an intimacy within the group, belying the myth of impersonality.

The Flatness Myth

This technology, so often referred to as "flat," in reality supplies depth and texture to the digital classroom experience. The myth of a flat medium is misconstrued to mean something other than what the term was originally intended to denote -- that is, "a kind of organizational flattening ... that did not necessarily follow hierarchical lines of management".[12] The decentralized control -- or "cyber-democracy" -- some have touted as characteristic of the online virtual community is a notion that is now challenged by other critics,[13] but finds perhaps its best expression in this networked educational environment.

Posting to a forum or writing a message in this medium may involve several layers of message creation and feedback. These are actually multi-dimensional threaded 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 a threaded conversation emerging from these related messages. For example, in my leadership course the first assignment required each student to write and to post at the topic level an autobiographical essay. Students read one another's essays and reacted in reply to each individual essay. Also in this course there were weekly discussion topics on various aspects of leadership tied to the assigned readings, and I posted these topics. Every student was expected to reply at least once, but many responded more frequently with additional postings.

A different type of classroom structure is illustrated by my elective course on virtual leadership. Here the case study format was adopted instead, and students were expected to research and write their own cases. Each student was assigned a content area related to virtual work groups and one week of the term for posting his or her case. The other students analyzed problems and opportunities and developed case solutions that were posted as replies under the weekly study topic. The students took turns moderating these conversations and the weekly moderator assumed primary responsibility for synthesizing the key points in a final summary posting for that week. Obviously, this is a lot to keep track of, and, fortunately, there are software utilities to assist with monitoring the flow of messages. The instructor's role generally is to facilitate discussion, to provide feedback and closure, and to insert supplemental and transitional material where needed.

Key Lessons

Several important lessons taken away from this experience in digital classrooms tend to revolve around the challenge to traditional classroom schemes. The lessons of the Fielding ODE program include remembering the critical function of designing the technology to fit the desired learning outcomes and not vice versa. Too often institutions buy into an infrastructure of hardware and software that constrains, rather than enhances, the learning experience. In this case, the two seem well-matched without the cart leading the horse, so to speak. Another valuable lesson for any type of technological start-up operation is to expect turbulence and, if possible, embrace it the way Fielding has by incorporating it into the language and culture of the institution. This is a risk-taking enterprise and one should expect the unexpected, while learning to ride the waves of change.

There are also lessons about the sorts of people best-suited to this undertaking. There is a technology adoption curve that permits innovators and early adopters to "cross the chasm" sooner than other, more conservative or reluctant educators.[14] The Fielding case study provides some indicators of individual characteristics for achieving success for both students and teachers in these digital classrooms. Interestingly, many of the identified characteristics are similar to those attributed to successful telecommuters[15] and to today's so-called consumer-oriented adult learners who shop for courses tailored to their particular interests. Students who are most likely 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 that university-level students participating in distance learning are typically older and married, have children and are often juggling their school, work and family responsibilities.[16] Fielding's students are no exceptions.

Likewise, successful faculty members able to teach well and enjoy working in the digital networked 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 Internet requires large amounts of time and a well-planned course design and permits faculty to translate their style into a new format which should add value to student learning.[17] The Fielding ODE Master's Program afforded me this opportunity to learn along with my students in a very stimulating setting.


[1.] Sproull, Lee and Sara Kiesler (1995), Connections: New Ways of Working in the Networked Organization, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[2.] Kubala, Tom (1998), "Addressing Student Needs: Teaching on the Internet," T.H.E. Journal, 25(8), pp. 71-74.

[3.] Porter, David (1996), Internet Culture, New York, NY: Routledge.

[4.] Turkle, Sherry (1995), Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

[5.] Rafaeli, Sheizaf and Fay Sudweeks (1998), "Interactivity in the Nets," in Network & Net Play: Virtual Groups on the Internet, Menlo Park, CA: AAAI Press/The MIT Press.

[6.] Baer, Walter S. (1998), "Will the Internet Transform Higher Education?", The Emerging Internet: Annual Review, Queenstown, MD: The Aspen Institute.

[7.] Ives, B. and Jarvenpaa, S. (1996), "Will the Internet Revolutionize Business Education and Research?", Sloan Management Review, 37(3), pp. 33-40.

[8.] Swope, Suzanne (1994), The Approaching Value-Added Education, Educational Record, Summer, pp. 17-18.

[9.] Kubala.

[10.] Sproull and Kiesler.

[11.] Moore, Geoffrey (1995), Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Technology Products to Mainstream Customers, San Francisco, CA: Harper Business.

[12.] Sproull, Lee and Samer Faraj (1996), "Some Consequences of Electronic Groups," in M. Stefik (ed.) Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[13.] Porter.

[14.] Moore.

[15.] Shaw, Lisa (1996), Telecommute, New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

[16.] Souder, W.E. (1993), "The Effectiveness of Traditional vs. Satellite Delivery of the Management of Technology Master's Degree Programs," The American Journal of Distance Education, 7(1), pp. 37-53.

Barbara Mahone Brown is a founding faculty member of the ODE Master's Degree Program at the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif. She serves on the marketing faculty at San Jose State University and as the president of her own firm, Elbow Room Consulting. Brown earned her M.B.A. from the University of Chicago and her Ph.D. from Stanford University. E-mail:
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Title Annotation:Company Business and Marketing; Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara
Publication:T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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