Each week, students come from Alaska, North Carolina, Haiti, Massachusetts, Japan, and beyond to attend class and join the group discussion. Today, class is meeting in the treehouse among the branches of a bristlecone pine. “Would anyone like a coffee before we begin?” asks Dr. Linda Polin, director of the Doctor of Education in Educational Technology program. One by one students decline or accept the coffee and begin to share a few casual comments. “You should have seen the northern lights this morning,” says the Alaskan. Once all students have been accounted for, class begins and the computers begin to ring with incoming and outgoing messages, keyboards click, and the discussion is in full swing.
Students in Pepperdine’s online programs do not truly convene for class in treehouses or airplanes; they are not even physically sitting in front of one another. The entire class environment is a creation of imagination, built on top of a shared computer application, and each student is tapped into an academic world that extends far beyond the confines of one classroom, or one desk, or one human perspective.
Although traditional brick-and-mortar institutions still dominate the academic landscape, the digital classroom is becoming a common and critical form of education. According to the United States Distance Learning Association, 90 percent of four-year public schools and more than half of four-year private schools offer some form of online education. Students can attend classes at a time and place that best fits their individual needs, which allows universities like Pepperdine to enroll adult, working students whose location and schedule would otherwise prevent them from pursuing their graduate academic degrees. The result is a university that can continue to boost enrollment without dedicating the often limited and costly physical classroom space—a win-win for both student and academic institution. But in many ways, online programs are not that different from their traditional class brethren.
“A completely online program is definitely more cost-effective, but a hybrid model that combines face-to-face and online is absolutely necessary,” says Dr. Linda Polin, director of the Pepperdine’s doctor of education in Educational Technology program. “You need human contact. How can you trust someone whose eyes you have never looked into?”
Pepperdine’s programs are a blend of online interactions and face-to-face class meetings, which for the doctoral program are held five times each year for five days at a time on the East Coast, the West Coast, and at international locations. The Online Master’s in Educational Technology program meets for three face-to-face meetings over the course of the entire thirteen-month program. This hybrid model has become the standard for other institutions looking to capitalize on the digital demand.
Pepperdine’s online programs function in a cadre or cohort format—students move through the entire degree program together, as a family or “community of practice.”
Each program also hosts a one-week orientation session where students meet at the Pepperdine Drescher Graduate Campus in Malibu to learn all the software they will be using, and to get a first glimpse of the faces and personalities they will be working with for the next few years.
So what exactly does online learning look like and how does it work? Students can log in to class from anywhere, at any time, and talk to experts and colleagues from a myriad of geographic, socioeconomic, and personal backgrounds. But is class just a series of instant messenger-like discussions? Is it completely independent study that each student completes on his or her computer, much like in correspondence courses? The answers differ from institution to institution, but the Graduate School of Education and Psychology’s hybrid programs take into account the challenges of online learning by holding 60 percent of class time in a face-to-face format accompanied by 40 percent online for the doctoral program and 85 percent online coursework for the master’s program.
“Our programs are not about technology, but about the learning process and engaging the learner,” says Dr. Margaret Weber, dean of the Graduate School. “Some schools simply take their correspondence study courses and put them online. What they do not realize is that you have to do more than simply change the medium; you have to change the curriculum to make it appropriate. Technology is just the tool, not the be-all and end-all.”
According to Polin, class size still matters in a digital environment. When online programs were initially introduced into the academic world, administrators’ enthusiasm ran high because it was commonly believed that this new format would allow an infinite number of students to attend classes, thus bringing in maximum dollars with no additional costs for classroom space or faculty support. What was ultimately discovered was that classroom interactions online were just as difficult to manage and keep constructive as they would be in a crowded classroom. Messages flew back and forth and teachers could not guide the discussions or allow each student equal time to participate. Polin holds synchronous class online two times each session for the Ed.D. in Educational Technology students, at 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. Students choose which class time they prefer to attend, thus reducing the class size of twenty-two students by about half for each session.
There are two ways in which students attend class online. First, students log in and interact together in “real time” through a chat program, made possible by Tapped In software. At each Tapped In class session, students log into a synchronous environment that is very similar to an Internet chat room. The professor usually poses the initial question or issue, and each student responds with written messages that produce a flowing discussion that is written instead of verbalized. The dialogue is complete with nonverbal behavior such as emotions or body language that are described in text, or “emoting” as it is known online. Each participant writes out responses, such as “sighs” or “rolling eyes,” to convey feeling. In Polin’s class, participation determines one-third of a student’s grade, and just like face-to-face classroom time, the more a student contributes to the online discussion, the more participation points that student earns. “Students struggle at the beginning, just as they would in a regular classroom,” Polin says. “No one wants to raise his or her hand or take a risk. Dynamically, the online classroom is not all that different.”
The amount of classroom learning and faculty-student interaction, however, far exceeds the online class time. In fact, most students and professors agree that an online program requires far more time than a traditional class. “Some people think it is the easy way to take a class, but it is has been my experience that it can end up being a lot more work from the student’s and teacher’s point of view,” says Allison Powell, a student in the Ed.D. in Educational Technology program and a teacher at a virtual high school. “As a student, you can’t hide in the back of the classroom, you have to answer each and every question the teacher or professor asks. Every student has a front-row seat in the classroom.”
“Work for instructors also increases substantially online,” says Dr. Paul Sparks, program director for the Online Master’s in Educational Technology. “Office hours are not as important because an instructor is available 24/7 in e-mail and chat modes.” So while many faculty comment on seldom receiving a student visitor during normal office hours until the last week of class, the online faculty speak to their students almost every day.
The second way students interact is through an asynchronous application known by many names: newsgroup, threaded discussion, Web board, or forum. In the Internet world, newsgroups support online communities of like-minded people by providing a shared space to post or reply to messages on topics relevant to a specific topic. There are currently hundreds of thousands of newsgroups that range from discussions on everything from celebrities to feline diabetes. For the Pepperdine programs, the newsgroup discussion allows the student or professor to post a public or shared e-mail—it could be a discussion point, a question, or an observation—and have the rest of the group weigh in. In the Educational Technology doctoral program there will be, on average, 1,200 to 1,500 postings per semester for each class. The reading quickly adds up.
“When you respond to these postings, you have to stay on point,” explains Polin, “because the student’s posting—his or her words—are still there in front of you, staring you in the face. You are more likely to connect your response to those words because you can continually reabsorb what he or she has said.”
Online programs have allowed students who otherwise would be unable to attend class or pursue their degrees to do so. There are the obvious benefits to people who cannot afford to quit their jobs to move on campus or dedicate themselves to a full-time program or to those who work better at alternative hours of study late at night or early in the morning. But there are also benefits to students who are limited by physical handicaps. Because online discussions take place in a written transcript of organized thought, rather than an improvised cacophony of voices, students like Tomas Garcia, who is currently enrolled in the program and is hearing impaired, can participate just like any other class member.
“Because I am deaf, in face-to-face settings I rely on an American Sign Language interpreter to relay information from another individual to me. As expected, there are gaps in both the timeliness, transmission, and accuracy of information,” explains Garcia. “In an online setting, these problems become virtually nonexistent. I get information at the same time and rate as everyone else. I also get the exact information that everyone gets. The playing field, in effect, has been leveled.” Garcia also discusses the challenges of working on group projects, which often results in impromptu meetings and discussions in which he is unable to participate because there is not time to arrange for an interpreter to be present. “In an online setting, however, these types of scenarios and traditional walls of accessibility are torn down.”
One would expect an online program to yield an impersonal environment where students complete weeks of group work without ever coming face-to-face with their fellow classmates and are, thus, not able to form relationships with one another that hold the same depth and mutual understanding that could be expected from face-to-face interactions. In reality, the students and faculty say that this assumption could not be further from the truth.
Not only is the work very collaborative, but the fear of working in an unfamiliar medium seems to instantly bind the students. And the classroom discussions and newsgroup postings are often very personal and open. “There is something about being in your own home,” says Polin. “It makes you feel safer. People sometimes act like it is anonymous.” The open honesty and intense workload create a tightly woven group of classmates who are quick to help one another whenever needed, whether it is with a project or with a personal struggle.
“We strongly believe that people learn best by collaborating and constructing rather than sitting quietly and listening,” says Sparks. “As it turns out, this more active and involved means of learning is further enhanced by online tools. Our students all remark that the learning experience is considerably more personal and more interactive than other programs.”
Just as the Internet has created a global community of learners who can freely interact and learn from one another, the online world of education has done the same. The digital classroom breaks down the geographic and professional borders that separate students and has developed a means of doing more than just bringing students together, by allowing a meaningful way of benefiting from the varied experiences and backgrounds. It is a place where an engineer from NASA and a middle school teacher can work together towards a common goal and truly appreciate the differences and commonalities that make that process challenging and beneficial. “People learn by having access to the larger culture or organization,” says Polin. In a community of practice, “the individual learns through a process of enculturation into a slowly but constantly evolving practice. From this perspective, learning is often described as identity transformation within a community,” she writes in her chapter contribution to the book, Learner-centered Theory and Practice in Distance Education: Cases From Higher Education.
According to Sparks, “The online world supports who they [today's students] are and how they interact. They expect online interaction and the efficiency it brings to their lives.”
The digital classroom has clearly taken hold in graduate-level studies, but will it translate to high schools and elementary schools? The debate continues as to how effective or appropriate online learning will be for undergraduate college students and younger. Digital connections can bring isolated or underfunded schools access to much-needed resources. For example, a high school in Los Angeles that cannot provide advanced placement calculus classes for students can conduct videoconferencing or online classes with a distant “borrowed” teacher at another school. But as the classroom continues to evolve along with communication technology, the question looms on the horizon—what will tomorrow’s classes look like and who will know how to teach them?