Degrees of Separation

Virtual students give school the boot (up)

As students went back to school this semester, some prepared for class in an unorthodox way: they came home from work, put the kids to bed, and logged on. Seven million students to date have participated in "distance learning" (including correspondence courses and those on videotape), but a growing number are turning to the Internet to inject some of the classroom dynamic into the experience. And even the most prestigious universities have begun scouring blueprints and mixing the mortar for their virtual ivory towers.

Also called asynchronous learning (AL), Net-based distance learning enables a student to access syllabi, lectures, assignments, class discussions, and online libraries through the Internet 24 hours a day. At least 1000 credit, noncredit, and degree courses are available this academic year at a variety of New York institutions of higher learning.

For most AL students, long distances and time constraints create the necessity for online learning. "I drive past the Albany campus on the way to and from work every day, so distance is not the problem for me," says Eric Fredericksen, director of the SUNY distance-learning program, who is also a student in the program. "A full-time job, travel, and an 11-month-old son make it difficult to adhere to a campus schedule." Stephen Anspacher, director of the four-year-old Distance Instruction for Adult Learning (DIAL) program at the New School, understands the bind. "Some people just can't be in Greenwich Village on Tuesday at 5 p.m.," he says. A full 40 percent of DIAL's online students are located outside New York, and half that population is located outside the country.

Asynchronous learning creates opportunities for international faculty as well. New School professors teach from their PCs in Jerusalem, Brussels, Paris, and Tokyo. The director of one AL program was not available for an interview; he was in China developing partnerships with teachers in Beijing.

Marie Alexander, a travel coordinator for a New York vitamin company who will receive her B.S. from the New York Institute of Technology in 2000 (an accomplishment she says would not have been possible without AL), equates her virtual classes with independent study. The online classrooms contain report folders for papers; homework folders for completed assignments; an electronic lecture area; and the Bafflegab Cafe, a chat room where classmates "kick back, grab a mug of latte, and knock ideas around," she says. Students log on a minimum of three times a week (at DIAL, Anspacher, reports, they log on between three and five times a day), and faculty offer regular feedback in the online classroom, where participation is marked like attendance. "If my professor notices that I have not participated," Alexander says, "he'll write to me and say, 'I want more participation.' "

Despite not knowing her fellow students by sight or sound, Alexander says classmates have a good sense of one another. "Classroom participation was not my strong suit; I was timid. I wouldn't have said what I thought about things happening to Clinton. But. . . online I have time to form an opinion, and if I want to have a separate conversation with one classmate, I can step into another frame on my computer to [hold real-time] dialogue there." Most schools realize anonymity can detract from the classroom relationships and are working to combat this. At NYIT each student is required to post an autobiography at the beginning of the semester.

While Alexander extols the virtues of virtual learning, a much publicized study released by Carnegie Mellon University in September suggests that Internet use may have adverse social consequences. Contrary to expectations, the report revealed that even infrequent Internet users experience higher levels of depression and loneliness than those who do not use the Net at all. The $1.5 million study tracked 169 people in 73 households over a one- to two-year period, and found a "negative social effect" that was proportional to the extent of use, says Bill Scherlis, a coauthor of the report. But Scherlis cautions against hastily applying the study's results to virtual universities. "The social tie with a professor is a significant, important tie and not the same relationship that 'Captain Z' has with 'Wizard' in a chat room," he says.

David Sachs, who teaches online and in classrooms at Pace University, agrees. "In a way, I know my online students far better than the ones in the classroom. Students have more time to think about what they want to say. Sometimes they have a day to think before they submit a response. Interesting opinions surface that I rarely saw in the classroom." But Sachs notes the downside as well. "Now what you don't get is the wonderful body language, the cues, and the unexpected meeting between two people as they walk out of the classroom together." Professors maintain round-the-clock virtual office hours, which enable a student to contact a professor at any time with a question, for guidance on an assignment, or to air a reaction to a classroom discussion. The only barrier to an immediate response is a busy schedule.

To date, a Mothers Against Distance Learning or a Parents' Cyber Resource Center has not reared its head, but sophisticated critics are raising important questions. In his essay "Electronics and the Dim Future of the University," published in Science magazine, Eli M. Noam, a professor at Columbia Business School, asks: "Will [the university] be more than a collection of remaining physical functions, such as the science laboratory and the football team? Will the impact of electronics on the university be like that of printing on the medieval cathedral, ending its central role in information transfer?" Noam insists that the introduction of AL will not only affect the value of the university and the method of disseminating information, but will dramatically alter our culture. "It's a revolution of all of society," he said in an interview. "To say otherwise is as simplistic as saying that the introduction of cars reduced the number of horse stables."

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