Digital Classrooms: Some Myths about Developing New Educational Programs Using the Internet

Article excerpt

Each student's entering computer skills and proficiency level are assessed in a user-friendly atmosphere with service-oriented professional staff.

Faculty have expressed growing interest in teaching via the Internet among university faculty members. The Internet has been variously characterized as an "efficient" means of communication,[1] an "impersonal" environment for distance education[2] and a "flat" medium for widely distributed control and decision-making.[3] Several largely unproven assumptions underlie these descriptions, and for that reason computer-mediated work and learning environments merit further investigation. To date, the literature on electronic or digital learning environments using networked computers and groupware in particular is not well developed.

This paper describes the experiences of a teacher in a new Master's Program in Organizational Design and Effectiveness (ODE) launched successfully by the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara, Calif., in January 1997. The program illustrates innovative, high quality approaches to adult education, which makes it an especially interesting case study. This case offers a means of exploring some myths and assumptions regarding digital classrooms and the Internet as well as providing insights and lessons for educators and institutions wishing to explore teaching and learning in this new medium.

With the exception of one-week, face-to-face orientation and planning sessions, the Fielding ODE program is delivered entirely via computer-mediated instruction employing the Internet and the World Wide Web. The author served as a consultant to the program from its inception; assisted in the concept development, curriculum design and marketing phases prior to the program's official start; and subsequently served as a member of the faculty teaching one of the required core courses in the curriculum, Human Development and Leadership, as well as an "event-based seminar" in Virtual Leadership. The Fielding ODE program is an exemplary program, having been awarded special recognition by the American Council on Education and the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.

Members of the charter cohort of students include independent consultants, a general manager for global strategy development in the communication industry, the chief executive officer for a North American trade union, a pair of information systems and lousiness process consultants sent by alliance partners, directors of training and development for transnational organizations, and educators involved in large-scale social change projects. Now, as the program enters its second year, all of the participants, including members of a second and third cohort of students, are actively involved in interactive online seminars about theory and practice that span the geographic boundaries of Europe, Canada, the USA, South Africa and Asia.

The Fielding Institute faculty is committed to building a global community of lifelong learners. At the same time, the faculty is committed to maintaining the intimate scale of these conversations. This means maintaining a student to faculty ratio of 8:1 in the electronic seminars. This also means developing a faculty skilled at facilitating online groups and helping program participants develop real-time solutions to real-life business problems. Fielding employs gifted scholar-practitioners around the world. High standards are maintained in this highly interactive, individualized approach to guided practice.

A Focused Curriculum

The importance of designing curriculum and technology in tandem is underscored by the Fielding experience. The curriculum for the Master's degree is positioned on the intersection of organizational design, electronic communication and cross-cultural issues that grow out of its students, their communities and places of work. A focused curriculum offers opportunities to explore demanding challenges facing organizations today: human and cultural difference, electronic communication, group dynamics and globalization. …