Web classes a challenge for teachers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Barry Brownstein was already a pro at teaching business classes when he started offering them online three years ago.

The switch from classroom to cyberspace has been more challenging than he expected.

"For each course I'm teaching on the Web, I'm spending two to three times the amount of time I'm spending in the classroom," said Brownstein, director of the WebMBA program at the University of Baltimore. "The demands on your time are so much greater."

His classroom students expect to see him in class and during designated office times, but his online students expect more, said Brownstein, who has been teaching at UB for 23 years.

"You have to be there every single day," he said. "People expect instant service, and if you don't have a big presence, if you're absent, it's not very satisfactory from the standpoint of the students."

The promise of online learning is that students can take courses anywhere in the world, at any time of day or night, without getting out of their pajamas. There are no commutes, no bookstore lines, no huge, anonymous lecture halls.

It sounds convenient - for students, at least. But instructors and officials in academia are finding the first part of the ride rather bumpy.

"Institutions are learning that it's more complicated than they thought it would be," said Gerald A. Heeger, president of University of Maryland University College, which has positioned itself as an online education leader. "Most institutions are learning you can't just put a course up online. It's a very complicated process."

Despite these difficulties, many universities are going full-speed ahead with online learning programs.

In 1998, 60 percent of colleges and universities offered some form of online learning, up from 28 percent in 1995, noted a 1999 report from the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics.

Such courses have proved most popular among public institutions and smaller community colleges, with elite private schools seeing less reason to tinker with their formulas.

Online education offers two distinct advantages for universities: It allows them to reach out to students beyond their geographic boundaries, and it gives them the opportunity to establish themselves as leaders in a new field.

"Our ability to be a leader in that field has allowed us to capture people's attention," Heeger said.

But kinks must be ironed out in nearly every category - technical, financial, pedagogical and even legal.

For example, when students attend a physical campus, they can stop by their adviser's office, take books out of the library and visit the financial-services center. Online, all of those services have to be available in a format that's logical and convenient for students, even if creating that format creates headaches for the university.

UMUC has a sophisticated library program that delivers books to students by Federal Express if necessary, Heeger said. That means somebody has to find the book and ship it, not exactly a time-saver for the university.

"Everything is more complicated," Heeger said.

Those complications are expensive. Educators say online courses cost just as much as classroom courses. Computers are cheaper than buildings, but buildings last longer, and their technology is far more stable.

"The technology continues to advance," said Ronald Legon, provost at the University of Baltimore. "You can't just stand still with advancements you've made in the technology."

To create a computer infrastructure powerful enough for online demands, UB hired Eduprise, a Morrisville, N.C., company, Legon said. "For small institutions like UB, that's a very big mountain to climb. So what we've done is outsourced some of that support."

Eduprise provides servers for the network, training for faculty members, software and round-the-clock support.

As with the Internet in general, many legal issues involving online learning have not been settled. Can a professor post material on the Web without violating copyright laws? Can the professor market a course outside the university without violating employment agreements?

As for pedagogy, professors are struggling to find the best ways to make use of the new method.

"The mental model we have in our head is of a teacher standing in front of the classroom. Nobody knows how to take full advantage of the medium," Legon said.

Tried-and-true classroom methods need to be reconsidered, he said. "There's a certain amount of socialization that goes on in the classroom, and people fall in line and follow the rules."

On the Web, the model is more collaborative. For example, in Brownstein's Global and Domestic Business Environment course, he poses several questions based on the week's reading. Students are required to post answers and interact.

"Through that inquiry and reflection, they start to get things they didn't get on their own," he said.

As online pedagogy evolves, universities expect to reap the rewards of new teaching methods. Simply learning how to learn online can be a boon for students graduating into a wired world, Heeger said.

"It's not really about distance. It's about a new kind of education and probably a new kind of learning," Heeger said.

Legon agrees. "What we hear very often from faculty is that the process they go through to develop Web courses feeds back into the classroom," he said.

Even as UMUC plunges heavily into online learning, Heeger imagines a classroom component to the university will always exist. Many UMUC students take a combination of online and what some call "reality" classes, he said, although the school offers 29 degrees completely online, including some in biotechnology, education and business administration.

For UMUC, which has a long history of leadership in distance learning, online offerings were a natural extension of the old cassettes and videos offered by the school.

Last year, the school had 40,000 online enrollments; that number might be as high as 70,000 in the 2001-2002 school year, Heeger said. "People are finding this works for them," he said.

Will Bryant, who graduated from UB's WebMBA program in December, said the online program allowed him to keep his job while he earned his degree. "I've got a pretty busy schedule between my workload and my family life," he said. "It was a way I could balance all my work and family life issues."

As associate director of finance and administration at the Welch Medical Library at the Johns Hopkins University, he was entitled to a tuition reduction at Hopkins. But Hopkins did not offer what he wanted online.

Most of his classes had six or eight students, although one had 20. "That was more difficult," he said of the larger class. Online, he said, "it was hard to keep pace with 20 opinions."

Typically, professors would post problems or questions and give students a certain amount of time to respond. That worked well, especially once everyone got used to one another's schedules, said Bryant, who lives in Baltimore County's Middle River community.

One professor tried to schedule a time for all the students to interact online, something that seemed too difficult to organize and seemed to defeat the point of an online course. "That really was a fiasco," Bryant said. But he predicts that online courses will get better as instructors find new ways to present material.

Brownstein agrees. "I can't say I have seen this yet to be a superior form of learning," he said. "But in the future, it will be a new and better form of learning."

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