Online learning takes more than a webcam in the classroom

Jennifer Imsande
Jennifer Imsande, Duluth, is associate director of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Courtesy photo

When the leading newspaper in Minnesota went bankrupt, I got scared. I teach at a university. The Internet will bring my profession to its knees, too, unless policy makers, colleges and universities learn from newspapers' mistakes. Which they're currently not doing.

Colleges aren't giving away content free, as newspapers have done. But, like newspapers, we're responding to the Internet revolution by taking a product that we designed and developed before the Web, and trying to reproduce it for a changed medium.

Too many newspapers at first responded to the Internet challenge by taking a static picture of their content, putting that picture on the Web and calling it a day. They were in the newspaper business, right?

Something similar is happening in education. Two-thirds of colleges and universities in the United States now have online courses. Yet most professors write their lectures and discussions as if for a live class, upload lecture notes or video to the Internet and call it a day. Because we want to reproduce on the Web what happens in the classroom.

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But the Internet does for students what the transportation revolution did for travelers: It changes their expectations for the speed of travel, the range of destinations and their control over movement. They've become a lot like my 11-year-old: Ask her a question -- say, define "revolution" -- and she'll race to the laptop or iPod, Google the word, and give me an answer based on the first five hits.

What happened to the time, sighed one colleague, when students would travel hundreds of miles to the Sorbonne to sit and learn at their master's feet?

I sigh, too. But really, four things would be more helpful:

1. Educators must consider carefully what business we're in. We're not in the classroom business. Neither are we in the technology business. Technology has value only if it increases our ability to teach the knowledge and problem-solving skills that we need to teach. My graduate students want to be political organizers and advocates; they'll need skills mobilizing constituencies with Web 3.0 tools and mobile technology. But they also need face-to-face relationship-building skills. Sometimes classrooms and chalk serve best.

2. We need new, hybrid professionals. We need technologists who are trained educators, and educators who can wrap technology around their learning objectives. In the past, if we wanted to teach emerging leaders how to lead a discussion, we'd let them lead class for an hour. Now 40 students can generate 400 discussion-board posts in 24 hours. How do we design and evaluate leadership experiences in this new environment?

3. We must transform our internal academic processes, which, like those of the print media, remain dependent on outdated decision-making standards and cycles. The course development process, for example, requires a sample bibliography comprising printed, peer-reviewed monographs. But when you're teaching students organizing methods, and you're talking about an election in which a presidential candidate won by making unprecedented use of digital tools, and the books about how he did it haven't been written yet -- you've got an adaptive failure.

4. College administrators and well-intentioned policy makers must abandon their sense that the Internet will save them money. Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said that he wants 25 percent of public college coursework online by 2015. He also has a habit of blocking state revenue increases. We can't have it both ways. Simplicity is expensive. Until the development of Web-based learning becomes so familiar to educators that it's boring -- the way overhead projectors did -- it requires significant initial investment.

Many journalists and professors will agree when I say that I wish I were near retirement so I wouldn't have to worry about the changes. But I'm not. Then I remember Rudolf Bahro, the East German dissident, who said, "When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure."

As if we had a choice.

Jennifer Imsande, Duluth, is associate director of the Masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership program at the University of Minnesota Duluth.