Online classes test intensity, discipline

Students, teachers adapt to booming world of Net courses

July 31, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

When teachers take a course at the University of Maryland, University College that teaches them how to practice their profession online, the first thing they learn is how a student feels taking a course over the Web.

"They have to understand what it's like if they get busy grading papers or something and don't get around to giving feedback for a couple of days," says Barbara Kaplan, head of UMUC's Center for Teaching and Learning Assessment. "It's like when you're talking on the telephone and there's a long pause. You wonder if the line's gone dead."

As colleges and universities around the world rush to the Internet like forty-niners heading for the California gold rush, Kaplan is one of a growing number of people trying to figure out what sorts of picks and shovels these educational cyberminers need.

What educators are discovering is that teaching an online course involves far more than putting lectures on the Web, answering a few questions and sending out an exam at the end of the semester. It's an intense, demanding experience that requires equal amounts of discipline from faculty and students.

That was the experience of Lisa Tompkins, who has just finished a two-year master's degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix.

"It's one of the most intense things I have ever done in my life," she says.

Phoenix courses are structured to mimic the school's classroom offerings that emphasize applied learning and group projects. Students are in three online discussion groups - one with the entire class, one with the instructor and one with a smaller work group. They must log in five out of every seven days, posting comments on that week's discussion.

"If you're not there all seven, you fall behind," says Tompkins, who works for Boeing Co. in Seattle. "It's so fast-paced. I think because they can't see your bright little faces in class, they make these people work. I was doing twice the work of my friends getting MBAs from regular universities."

The number of courses online, and students taking them, is growing so fast that no one can keep track. The for-profit University of Phoenix has seen a 60 percent increase in students each of the past three years. Online students account for more than 15,000 of the school's 75,000 students.

At UMUC, the state's adult education institution, online enrollments - a measurement of courses taken, not numbers of students - have tripled every year since they were first offered in 1994. They surpass 39,000 this year, with almost half of UMUC undergraduates and over two-thirds of its graduate students taking at least one course online.

In a brick-and-mortar classroom - or "on the ground," as they say at the University of Phoenix - the teacher is the center of attention, a figure of educational authority. In an online classroom, the teacher is more of a traffic officer, trying to direct students whose comments are coming from all directions onto the proper highway.

"I had my misgivings about teaching online," says Leona M. Lobell, who has been doing just that from her home in Connecticut for the University of Phoenix for three years. "In on-the-ground courses, I was very expressive and enthusiastic. I wondered how I could translate that into an online environment.

"What I have found is that the power of my language in the online medium is even stronger than it was on the ground," she says. "I am not distracted, and neither are my students."

And teachers have to go about their work without the visual cues they have relied on.

"You don't have your body language and your verbal inflections," says Ioan Salomie, a Romanian computer science instructor who is taking the UMUC online teaching course and hopes to teach for UMUC when he returns to his native land.

"There are 20 different ways to say the word `daddy,' but there is only one way to write it," he says. "So you have to be very careful with your language."

But there is an upside - everyone in the class participates. There is no domination of the classroom stage by a few outgoing types who intimidate the shy ones.

"In the classic classroom model, 10 people talk, and 20 hide," says Tom Cantu, an instructional designer at Towson University. "Online, everyone is required to participate. The introverts really come out when you have a discussion online."

Tompkins says the structure of her courses meant she and her fellow students had to participate or disappear.

"But you still have your classroom hogs," along with others who don't contribute enough, she says. "Sometimes you need the instructor to step in and say, `You're not carrying your end.'

"But when everyone participates, so many people coming from so many different places, you get such a rich perspective," she says.

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