Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 133 / SEPTEMBER 1991 / PAGE 18

Brain waves. (using computers to receive an education by conducting classes online) (includes related articles)
by Sherry Roberts

We've heard that the computer is an educational tool for so many years that it's almost a cliche. But the next generation of education programs -- called online education or computer-based distance learning -- is anything but dull and hackneyed. This is education on the brink -- technology tapped and harnessed to bring learning to people who are too busy to attend traditional school or who don't have access to conventional campus environments.

For example, an American soldier enrolled in an online college course at NOVA University in Florida continued to file assignments and attend electronic classrooms via his computer while stationed in the Persian Gulf.

"The whole goal is to reach as many people as possible with quality instruction," says Margaret Morabito, founder of the Computer-Assisted Learning Center (CALC), which offers continuing education, self-enrichment, and college-level courses for long-distance students of all ages on the online service GEnie. "There are so many barriers to learning in the offline world. Online is an excellent medium for overcoming those barriers."

In the offline world, there are businesses with inflexible hours, jobs with strenuous travel demands, and children that require babysitters. For the handicapped, the offline campus may be a chore to navigate. For students living in out-of-the-way locales -- a ranch in the Australian outback or a small burg in Alaska -- the offline campus may be hundreds of miles away.

Although online education appeals to a broad spectrum of people, from elementary students to senior adults, the greatest growth in this area has been undergraduate and graduate computer-based degree programs for working men and women.

Now a Fortune 500 executive can finish her doctoral degree without ever setting foot in a classroom; she can do her homework between business meetings or on a flight to Japan; she can attend class from a hotel room half a world away -- as long as she packed her computer and modem.

Online education can be as unstructured as someone putting out a call for help with homework on CompuServe's Student Forum or a rigid as one of the curriculum-based degree programs offered by schools such as the University of Phoenix, NOVA University, or the New York Institute of Technology.

The whole concept of computer-based distance learning is so new that everyone involved is a pioneer. No two educational institutions have organized their programs the same way. The only common denominator is the use of computer and modem.

CALC, for example, requires students to attend something called real-time classrooms. Unless a student has a medical or technical excuse, the student is expected to meet with the instructor and other students online at an assigned time. The University of Phoenix, on the other hand, does not require online students to log on for a specific class; students log on and off at their convenience to retrieve assignments, turn in homework, and confer with the teacher or other students.

NOVA University teams teleconferencing in the electronic classroom with videotapes of live classrooms and attendance at on-campus institutes.

The cost of CALC courses ranges from free to $40, plus connect time at $6 an hour. Tuition for online courses offered by accredited universities ranges from $100 to $250 per credit hour. Some programs charge an additional communications fee, which covers course and access setup and online hours; others allow students to purchase blocks of online hours.

School supplies are high-tech but basic: a computer (any kind), a modem, and telecommunications software, usually provided by the school. Online courses also require textbooks just like their campus counterparts.

On Your Schedule

Flexibility -- the ability to attend class wherever and whenever they wish -- is the main reason students enroll in online degree programs.

Lorraine Wright, an internal auditor for At & T in Atlanta, Georgia, says the online program of the University of Phoenix was the only way to get her master's degree in business administration. "My job requires 50 to 80 percent travel, but now that I have a laptop, I can go to school. There's no way I could make the traditional classroom setting."

When Wright first heard about computer-based learning from a coworker, she had her doubts about the quality and the serious intention of such programs. She quickly learned, though, that online learning is no easy cruise.

She estimates she spends 15-20 hours a week studying offline -- five hours of reading each weekend and 12-13 hours of work on two papers due each week. The first six weeks of class, she downloaded 500 pages of class material and student comments. "Because of the communication mode, I think you spend more hours per week on classwork [than in the traditional classroom course]," Wright says. "But that is the price you pay for flexibility."

Students also choose online courses because of the diversity of their classmates. The computer has facilitated the creation of truly global classrooms where students from Singapore study with students from Seattle and the student in the electronic desk next to you could be an airplane pilot, a CEO, or a retired schoolteacher.

"I like the networking with classmates," Wright says. "I've met people in my class from all over the United States from different companies and backgrounds. If I were in any of their towns, I'd feel comfortable enough to call them up and visit with them."

Students and teachers alike say there is a noticeable lack of shyness in electronic classrooms. "It is a very liberating and democratic environment," explains Tom Bishop, director of marketing for the University o Phoenix Online program. The university, which has 13 campuses throughout the Southwest, began offering computer-based degree programs in 1989.

"It is the content of the student's contributions that is important," Bishop says, "not the student's physical characteristics."

CALC's Morabito agrees, "When you're online, you don't have the physical presence, the facade that you must put on. No one knows that you didn't dress up to come to class or that you're handicapped and in a wheelchair or what kind of car you drive. Everyone is treated on the same basis, and it opens people up."

As computer-based education has developed, participants have noticed indirect benefits; students report a dramatic increase in communications and analytical thinking skills. The logistics of attending class via computer discourages rambling monologues (on the part of either student or teacher) and eliminates the potential for off-the-cuff answers.

Dr. Edward A. Becker, director of Graduate Accounting Programs at NOVA University, describes four communication skills: reading, writing, speaking, and listening. He theorizes that today's highly technological and complex work environment requires a fifth communication skill: computer literacy.

Studenta taking computer-based courses, by necessity, learn how to use a computer. Few of them are hackers. Often they turn to their teacher or fellow students for help when technology is about to get the better of them. Schools provide students with support while they learn the basics of computer use -- from how to log on to the school's system to how to get a transcript of last week's session from the school's library.

The Price for Flexibility

The most commonly heard complaint about online education is the lack of the "warm fuzzy factor" and face-to-face interaction. Participants miss the human touch and sometimes dislike dealing with an inanimate object.

Schools say they make a special effort to maintain contact with students in online programs so that they feel neither stranded nor isolated. When students yearn for the sound of the human voice, they frequently pick up the telephone and call classmates and teachers. Several members of a University of Phoenix study group that live in New England drove to a mutually convenient location for a get-together.

"It is much warmer and more human than most people would expect," Bishop says. "Humor comes through even in the typewritten word."

NOVA University solves the problem by integrating into its program chances for students to meet their online classmates and mentors in person. NOVA requires master's and doctoral students to attend either week-long institutes or weekend seminars in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. NOVA students and teachers also rub elbows at symposia held every three months at regional sites, such as Phoenix, Cincinnati, Atlantic City, and Jacksonville.

Degrees of Value

The New York Institute of Technology started the American Open University, its computer-based distance learning program, eight years ago. Dr. Ward Deutschman, director of the American Open University, says today the program is "clearly a success."

He says his online programs have only a 10-15 percent attrition rate as compared to the 50-80 percent attrition rate ordinarily found in traditional distance learning programs or correspondence courses.

Interaction is the element that makes online learning more than a modern day correspondence course. "We have found that connectivity between student and faculty, the fact that a student can get a response to his question in a day or two and that he is expected to interact online, makes a difference," Deutschman says.

Even if the computer does help keep some students in school, so to speak, is it all for naught? Are degrees earned via computer considered as valuable as those earned on campus?

Deutschman admits that the traditional world of academia has yet to welcome computer-based education with open arms.

"Some institutions that haven't been involved with distance education look at anything different with a jaundiced eye," Deutschman says. "The plus side of this is that institutions offering distance learning are really attending to the quality of instruction they are giving. They are investing enormous amounts of time and effort into ensuring that their quality of education is scrupulously maintained."

Frequently schools defend the quality of instruction in their online programs by using the same faculty to teach both campus and online courses. Or schools hire experts in their fields to teach particular online courses. NOVA University has the investment director for Travelers Insurance and an expert from the Internal Revenue Service on its accounting faculty. The University of Phoenix requires that its instructors not only have the appropriate academic accreditation but be currently practicing professionals in their fields.

The other attack on legitimacy comes from critics who question how those who administer online programs know who's doing the homework and, ultimately, earning the degree. Many schools require online students to take midterm and final examinations in the presence of a proctor who has been approved by the school. Or, as in the case of NOVA, they actually require the student to show up on campus for brief but important seminars and institutes.

There is a feeling among those involved with online education that special recognition ought to be given to those who earn a degree via computer. Take a look at the online student, says Deutschman: The person has to be self-disciplined, motivated, and able to work without a support group. "If [people] can be successful in distance learning, then you know they've got something," Deutschman says.

In fact, Bishop predicts online degrees will become increasingly valuable as employers gain experience with online graduates. "The development of analytical skills, as a result of the medium, changes the way people can conduct themselves in the workplace. Employers are going to be very pleased in the kind of results they get with people in this program."

The Quality Goes In

Educators running online programs know that such program will never replace traditional classroom learning. Online education is seen as an alternative service for a special group.

They predict, however, that technology-based education will have an impact on classroom-based education. They expect it, in some ways, to enhance campus learning.

Campus students, Deutschman says, may pressure schools to provide the same technological access to teachers that online students have. Online students typically can ask their professors a question via modem and get an answer in a day or two, while the campus students with a question is at the whim of his schedule and his professor's office hours.

But perhaps the greatest success of these groundbreaking education programs is that some educators have stopped talking about computers and begun using them. At last, in the case of online education, the computer has become an educational tool as essential as pencil, paper, and textbooks.

As Becker says, "We've been using lecture techniques to teach from the beginning. Then, when Gutenberg invented the printing press, we began using textbooks and lecture. All the studies tell us that there are more ways to teach effectively -- one is videotapes, and one is computer.

"Everybody is looking at [online learning], and everybody is talking about it. The future is wide open; we're only limited by our imaginations."