Selected Papers (pre-publication version)

(The following paper as an earlier draft of the published version).


Online Distance "Education" an Oxymoron?: An Interactionist's View

Jim Thomas / Northern Illinois University (Spring, 2000) (Earlier version of paper published in: SSSI Notes. 27(June): 3, 17) (As the current manager of the SSSI homepage and SSSITALK, the electronic discussion group, and a computer system administrator, I'm periodically asked questions related to computer technology and interaction. Beginning in this issue, I will try to address some of these issues, starting with one interactionist's view of online distance education.) For no particularly evident reason, symbolic interactionists have been relatively slow in adapting new technology to our scholarship and teaching. In some ways, we are missing the opportunity to expand the ways by which we can illustrate our theories, concepts and analyses with multimedia hypertext articles. In other ways, our caution against rushing headlong into the cyber realm may have prevented us from a precipitous leap into "hot" endeavors hyped by administrators and hucksters, but otherwise of questionable value. For example, take online distance education (ODE). Please. The advent of "virtual classrooms," "Cyber-universities," and online distance education in which students and instructors may never physically meet provides an example of how new technology can revolutionize, even eliminate, the traditional classroom. Driven by conventional institutions attempting to expand territory or recruit more students, idealistic educators who see ODE as a means of reaching an under-served population, entrepreneurs motivated by potential profits, or upstart organizations--some legitimate and others not--that bill themselves as "fully online universities," ODE is becoming a major presence in higher education. The new classrooms have led some state universities to enter into intra-state educational cooperatives, such as Western Governor's University, the ten-state consortium for on-line University, and Columbia University's collaborative for-profit web site to deliver online courses. Other reputable universities have established a strong online, distance educational curriculum, such as the New School for Social Research in New York, the University of Illinois, or Golden Gate University in San Francisco. Some schools have sprung up solely as online, such as Heritage University, California Virtual University, Diversity University, and Athena university. Billionaire Michael Saylor intends to spend $100 million to create an online university featuring the "10,000 greatest minds of our time" in lectures and video interviews. Michigan State University offers a two-year graduate program in criminal justice, the only one of it's kind. In my own state, Illinois, at the beginning of 2000 the Illinois Online Network, a resource for community colleges delivering online courses, served over 40 institutions. Enough already! Now, I can hardly be accused of being a luddite or of failing to appreciate the utility of computer-mediated education, especially Net-enhanced exercises, to supplement and enrich the classroom. As a system administrator and homepage manager, I have at least a minimal understanding of the technology. As one who incorporates the Internet into my classes, I recognize the strengths and weaknesses of computer technology as a pedagogical tool. But, as one who continues to teach both partially and fully online courses, I have come to a rather unsettling conclusion that most interactionists would intuitively understand: Fully online distance education courses are inherently of far less quality than the conventional classroom experience. We've gone too far, too fast, without adequate reflection. It's time to challenge the tendency to rush ahead with with techno-gimmicks and increasing online courses without addressing some fundamental interactionist-informed issues, such as: 1) What are the limitations to ODE, and how should these limitations be built into curricular development and institutional planning? 2) What is the relationship between ODE courses and conventional courses? 3) Under what conditions should such courses be offered, and what restrictions, if any, should be imposed in who may take them? 4) Does ODE risk subverting the integrity and goals of conventional education? 5) Are ODE classes as effective as conventional classroom courses in accomplishing the goals of current educational philosophy? Is online distance education ever appropriate? Yes. Is it appropriate for most college courses? The reasonable answer is an emphatic "no!" But, reason has often been replaced with zeal by ODE advocates. When public speaking is offered, without irony, as a 100 percent ODE class, or when an introductory drama course is offered online, we should begin reflecting a bit on what we're helping to create. When Illinois community colleges are moving into the online game and offering courses that may not prepare students for classroom work when the transfer to NIU, we should be a bit more critical about the traps we're setting for our future. As Internet educational technology develops, it is easy to imagine a synchronous holographic classroom in our living room. And, of course, creating new ways to enhance education through the use of online technology should be supported. But, that's not the point. My concern is the bandwagon effect: Legislators see it as a way to economize; Some administrators see it as a way to create new student markets; some faculty see it as a way to build a career. Some students see it as a way to reduce labor. Perhaps it's time to throw up the yellow caution flag on the so-called "Information Highway" and recognize the dangers it poses to the educational system. As an interactionist, I ask: Imagine you are Socrates' student. Now, imagine you are Socrates' on-line student. If interactionists don't ask the question, who will? ==================== (These comments were extracted from "Traps and Pitfalls of Teaching Criminal Justice Online" presented at the Midwest Sociological Society Annual Meetings, Chicago, April, 2000.

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