September 02, 1999 News » Cover Story

Back to the Virtual Classroom 

Learning via remote, and mouse, on the rise

Carl Sonntag has a list of students who've signed up for one of his Principles of Marketing classes this fall at Pikes Peak Community College. But he doesn't know their names.

Nor does Sonntag, who's also a dean in the college's business school, know where on the planet those 18 students live. "Usually, 40 percent are from out of state," Sonntag said of his class. "But looking at this list, it's hard to tell where they're from."

The list that Sonntag refers to contains only the students' e-mail addresses, which betray little about the pupils' physical whereabouts.

"Last semester, I had a student in Iowa. One took the class while vacationing in Bermuda. A lot of [students] are from Denver, but I've had people from as far away as New York and California."

Geographic diversity is not the only unusual thing about Sonntag's class, which begins, well, sometime next week. Because Sonntag's class is taught entirely on the Internet, it doesn't actually meet at any particular time, in any particular place.

To paraphrase Einstein, there are no fixed points in cyberspace, and Sonntag's class is no exception. Students log on whenever and wherever it's convenient to see a video of his lectures, or throw their two cents into to a classroom "discussion" that's posted on a class Web page.

"We have students who work until midnight; we have students that work during the day, so this allows them to log in anytime, anywhere," said Sonntag.

The students send in their assignments in any manner of format, from Zip disks to e-mail, and much of the discussion between teacher and student occurs via e-mail.

Such "virtual classrooms" -- as they're sometimes called -- have evolved far more slowly than the media hype surrounding them. But they're definitely catching on.

This year, Pikes Peak Community College expects to enroll roughly 100 students in Internet classes, and many of those are also enrolled in CCC Online, a virtual community college of sorts made up from a consortium of community colleges around the state.

Through CCC Online, students can get an associate degree in business and a good portion of an associate of arts degree. Computer-connected PPCC students are also encouraged to go on and earn a four-year degree via Ohio-based Franklin College, which offers Internet classes to students around the country.

And Pikes Peak is not alone in the Internet market.

The private University of Phoenix also offers Internet classes, and the state-run University of Colorado in Colorado Springs offers a complete master of business degree, along with numerous continuing education courses for adults, via the World Wide Web.

And business is booming.

Last year, UCCS logged at least 1,004 "enrollments" -- the number of classes students signed up for -- by Internet students, mostly through the school's Internet MBA program, said Megan Self, director of continuing education for UCCS. That's nearly 10 times the number of online students registered during the 1991-92 school year.

To Self, it's a natural outgrowth of the traditional, snail-mail correspondence class (which UCCS still offers by the way). "It's just the latest trend in continuing education," she said. "There was a phase when they even tried the telegraph, when they did it by radio and when TV was tried. Each generation of technology brings a new version of distance learning. It just gets called something different each time."

And why not? For colleges and universities, the Internet offers a new market that can be tapped without the capital and overhead costs associated with expanding the physical classroom.

Similarly, colleges and universities began offering television classes roughly 10 years ago to people who, for whatever reason, would not, or could not, make it to campus for a real, live classroom experience.

This fall, for example, Pikes Peak Community College will offer 16 different classes -- from geology to technical writing to English composition -- via two public-access cable channels, 11 and 13.

(Because programming time on those channels is already fully booked, local colleges were active in the effort to convince the Colorado Springs City Council to put a cable-franchise agreement on the ballot this November. Though the agreement has been criticized by some as a tax on cable users -- and as a spineless sell-out to cable provider Century Communications by others -- the agreement would give learning institutions more public-access channels to play with.)

Whether or not distance learning is good for education is open for debate, however. There's been considerable talk at Pikes Peak and UCCS, for example, about what kind of classes should be put online and which ones shouldn't.

While Internet learning may serve some well -- particularly those who cannot attend traditional classrooms -- profs such as Pikes Peak's Malcolm McCollum worry that the distance-learning trend could go too far.

Though McCollum thinks new technology will help many students, he worries that people might forget that the best learning happens when people gather and talk in the same physical location.

"Because that kind of learning is dependent on having a group of living beings together in a room," said McCollum, who teaches English and co-directs PPCC's Downtown Studio Campus. "And I don't think there's anyway to replace that experience while you're sitting behind the mask of technology, e-mailing people."

Sonntag concedes there are problems with the Internet medium. For one thing, there's no way to be sure the person who's signed up is really the one doing the work.

But, he notes, the traditional classroom is not immune to cheating, and he adds that the Internet does offer some advantages. For example, he said, e-mail sometimes creates a more thoughtful dialogue than the traditional classroom, because students can re-read e-mails before responding, or clicking on the "send" button.

But there are also glitches, he said. For example, sometimes the technology gets in the way. Computers sometimes crash, the "servers" that run Web sites sometimes go "off-line," the World Wide Web becomes the World Wide Wait, etc., etc.

"Some students sign on, then realize they don't have a powerful enough computer to view the video or hear the audio that's part of the class," Sonntag noted.

"In general, I think it's much more challenging for both the student and the instructor," said Sonntag, adding that all the e-mailing back and forth requires a considerable amount of time for both student and teacher. "It takes a student who has a much higher level of motivation."

Ditto for TV learning, said Julie Witherow, an English teacher and director of distance learning at Pikes Peak Community College. "But a lot of our students are older -- they average 27 or 28 years old -- so they want to be there," she said.

"The big thing with TV students is making the students not feel isolated," said Witherow. To get around that, she said, professors are encouraged to get students talking to each other, even working on group projects.

But Witherow conceded that some courses don't work as well as other subjects. "English composition is not as successful; math works well, because it's very visual. Skills-based classes like English comp might be somewhat less successful, though they work fairly well on the Internet because that's very text-oriented."

"I think there are probably some things lost" by not being in the traditional classroom, said Witherow. "On the other hand, for some students, the classroom dynamic is not a positive thing. They manage to do a little better if they're at home."



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