The Classroom… what is that?

Distance learning is nothing new.

There have been correspondence courses taught via the mail for decades. The difference today, is the technological means of real-time delivery, if desired or asynchronous delivery of content. Broadband accessibility, the ever decreasing cost of computer hardware, and the relatively new trend toward open source everything has lowered the barriers to entry to a minimum.


Economically the concept of computer aided distance learning is an obvious choice for colleges and universities that are trying to compete for tuition dollars of the world. Distance learning allows schools to expand their base of adjunct and visiting professors to a world-wide level. A Nobel Prize winning physicist from Prague doesn’t have to live in Cambridge to teach at MIT. Their course can be designed and developed in an online fashion, so they never have to leave their native land.  This goes for students as well.


Courses offered at Yale, MIT, Stanford can be accessed via platforms such as Itunes University, or Blackboard, and students can enroll and participate from their home town. No relocation, no dorm living, much more affordable.


Of course, there is something to be said about dorm life. Everyone should experience the surreal life of the freshman dorm: The roommate that plays Nintendo for an entire semester and only leaves the room for meals, and the occasional coed softball game. Or the pre-med dude that stays up all night playing guitar, and never gets tired. There is so much vomit, beer, pizza, and cigarettes that the online student will never experience if they stay home and take their classed online. Some may feel that vomit and cigarettes are over rated, but I think they are an essential part of the freshman experience, amongst many other things I will not mention. No self incrimination here…


Here at Quinnipiac, I have personally taken part in 5 online courses; some worked well and some not so well.  The online course inherently lacks the human element. The spontaneity of questioning and lecturing is non-existent. The relationship, though short that develops between students in a class is missing completely. If it were not for the other in-class course I have taken, I would not know anyone in class at all. No faces just email addresses. Not that I came to Quinnipiac to make friends, but I can say I am here partly to network, and partly to engage in discussion and the face to face discourse that gets the mind excited and active. And, if we could all go out and have a few beverages, and someone threw up, that wouldn’t be bad either.


There is no getting around the fact that distance learning is the future. Quinnipiac is embracing it. I tunes launched I tunes University, and has schools such as Yale, MIT, Stanford, Duke, etc… the list goes on and on. Currently, many of these schools are offering courses to non-matriculated students, and offering them for free. I would venture to guess that if the numbers are there and a constant and cohesive model can be developed, we will see the shift from free to tuition based courses. But this will be a real challenge.


Most academic institutions are built on the academic freedom of faculty members to teach as they see fit, within some limits. Tenure has rightly protected the academic from the pressures of the administration, and ensured the autonomy of the faculty, but this may have to change if there is to be a reliable model for the online program.


There are new barriers such as the technological learning curve, for both teacher and student. This of course will diminish as older faculty retire, and are replaced by younger faculty who have literally grown-up with technology as part of their beings. The freshman of 2020 will know Photoshop, Word, Illustrator, Final Cut, and Flash. They will be adept in whatever social networking platform is prevalent; assuming that FaceBook eventually becomes passé. The online movement is occurring at all levels of education, not just the University level. Elementary, Junior High and High Schools are adopting these technologies and teaching methods as well. The K-12 education system will never be entirely online, as those of us with children know, because of the babysitting aspect of school. Our tax dollars pay for roughly, 190 days of educational child care, by trained professionals. Many of those points are debatable, but that is a whole other essay.


The future of the classroom is an interesting one. Recently, many schools have been contemplating doing away with tuition as well. The endowments of several schools would allow them to exist, and function fully without tuition at all. Harvard’s endowment is somewhere in the range of $29 Billion dollars. That’s more than the GDP of many African nations.


The next generation will be raised with cell phones in hand, and laptops instead of notebooks. They will be ready for the online classroom, and will most likely demand it. It is almost absurd to thin that if you miss a lecture in today’s University, that you couldn’t download a podcast of it complete with Power Point slides, lecture notes, and assignments, but even here at Quinnipiac there are classes where that’s not possible. Academia is not a place of quick change, so I applaud Quinnipiac for the strides that it has made with technology. But, I have a feeling that once the stigma of an “online course” has diminished, and it will, the world of academia is going to ramp up quickly and begin to move at broadband speed.