Pedagogy First, Technology Later

Faculty members can get their hackles up when they see administrators trying to force online instruction into the curriculum. At the University of Washington, Seattle, 2 years ago, 900 professors signed a protest letter to the governor (Science, 26 June 1998, p. 2019). At York University in Toronto, Canada, at about the same time, they struck for 2 months. Taking a gentler approach, University of Illinois (UI) faculty members held a seminar.

After a year of talk amongst themselves and with outside experts, 16 professors from the three UI campuses issued a report last week offering recommendations and precautions for universities thinking to add online classes. Although the committee came to no classroom-shattering conclusions, they do give some commonsense advice. Paramount, says chemical engineer John Regalbuto, the seminar's chair, is to have good teachers involved in the development of online instruction every step of the way. "We don't want technology to get ahead of pedagogy," he says.

The seminar participants warn that get-rich-quick schemes for Internet teaching are doomed to fail. Effective online teaching requires a lot of technical support and instructor time spent interacting with students one on one, they say. The most successful online teaching programs, Regalbuto points out, are those in which students pay extra to take a course with flexible hours, such as full-time workers taking graduate business classes. But historian David Noble of York University warns that online courses are bound to be low-quality scams--digital diploma mills. Distance learning is not about education, he says: "It's about money." The profit motive drives private firms to produce online teaching materials and universities to buy them; for a school to make money on the deal, he argues, it has to ignore the kinds of recommendations that the Illinois group makes.

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