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ONLINE EDUCATION ... (How far will it take us?)
By Dr. W. David Currie -- June 24, 2000
Online educational development is sweeping across America at a blistering pace. 

This technological wave in education parallels the adoption of information technology in nearly all aspects of commerce and industry, and ii) reflects the strong recommendations of the 1996 NSF report on undergraduate science teaching.

Dr. W. David Currie (Dave)

The low cost (some would disagree), multimedia capability of today's home computer combined with its functional versatility, unlimited internet-based information resources and high speeds of transmission make the networked microcomputer the fastest, most cost-effective, resource-based learning tool available to today's students and professionals.  With the growing acceptance of internet-based learning strategies into major industries, for example the health care industry, the direction of continuing professional education is also swinging towards the technological.

How far will the trend take us and will everyone accept this mode of learning?

Certainly not everyone will accept the internet as a primary mode of learning and we should not expect that they will.  There is virtually no subject which cannot be taught in the traditional classroom and, with very few exceptions, most pre-clinical, pre-externship and pre-apprenticeship subjects can be taught equally well over the internet.  So the choice of the internet class over the traditional class is likely to become strictly a market issue.  Some people still write checks, some people still use FAX machines and some people still like to go inside and talk "face-to-face" with the bank teller.  So expect the information technology trend to take us as far as the market will dictate... and I suspect that our latest survey on "for or against online education" may give some indication of how far the market is willing to shift in the technological direction!

Cases in which persons are likely to select internet courses over traditional classes might be as follows:

  • individual wants to get greater value from their home computer system
  • individual cannot fit into inflexible traditional class schedule
  • individual selects the home environment as a better learning environment than that provided by learning institutions (a problem that might be exacerbated by declining education budgets)
  • persons who have been exposed to poor classroom facilities or poor classroom resources
  • individual selects internet option versus costly travel to conference to maintain professional requirement for continuing education points
  • individual selects "record-keeping convenience" of an internet class... they cannot lose their syllabus, for example, because it is posted in the same location throughout the tenure of the course
  • individual has been home schooled and traditional college venues are "foreign" to them
  • some people just love technology!!!

Cases in which persons are likely to select traditional classes over internet based classes might be as follows:

  • individuals want face-to-face interaction with the instructor
  • individuals want immediate feedback from the instructor (and while this is possible during online discussions, the technology for most of us is still somewhat awkward and is clearly missing certain aspects of spontaneous "face-to-face" discussion - although this will change)
  • some individuals prefer to get much of their information in the personal, spoken manner of the instructor, versus having to independently read and interpret much of the information on the internet
  • some individuals prefer the more highly structured scheduling requirements offered by the traditional classroom
  • some students are concerned that if they do not meet their instructors, "face-to-face," they may not be able to get an academic or employment reference from the instructor
  • individuals who have had extraordinarily good experiences in the traditional classroom setting, who have an established record of strong academic performance in the traditional setting, or who seek out a teacher they believe to have special qualifications
  • some people just don't like technology!!!

Similarities between the online class and the traditional class...

Yes, the two formats are actually remarkably similar in terms of student perceptions, at least according to the e-mails I receive.  For every compliment or complaint I have received in the traditional classroom, I have received an equivalent compliment or complaint from my online students.  In fact, the 2 major complaints I receive from traditional and online students, in terms of numbers, are virtually identical...

  • the explanations are too complex
  • there is too much information and not enough time

So, it should be clear to anyone that students can encounter frustration with either learning format.  It should also be clear that a "graded" online class is not a suitable venue in which to be introduced to network technologies; this is like putting a student who cannot read into a junior level college course... it does not work!  A last comment in terms of communication... while I receive an average of more than 100 e-mails from each online student each semester, some online students send me no e-mails throughout the semester; I suspect that these same students would be silent in the traditional class and they seem to be an equal mix of poor, average and excellent students.

And As For What Dave Thinks...

Dave absolutely loves networking... but Dave will drive 15 miles to Bristol or Abingdon to talk "face-to-face" with the tractor parts dealer rather than try to communicate by telephone, e-mail or (PLEASE put it in storage with your 8-track player) the FAX.

Copyright © 2000
All Rights Reserved
Dr. W. David Currie

About the Author
Dr. W. David Currie (Dave) is a professor of anatomy and physiology in the Health Sciences Department of the College of Public and Allied Health.  His site, Dave's Faves, is a Browser & Media Player Update Center.  He lives in a small rural community in southwest Virginia with his wife, Stephanie, and raises beef cattle. The proud couple are expecting their first child, a daughter, in October (2000).  

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