Education in the ether

Education in the ether: By Vicky Phillips. The classical ideal of learning thrives in Net-based classrooms.

Published January 20, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

On a recent business trip a man asked me what I did for a living. I replied that I wrote and taught college courses.

"Oh?" he said. "Where do you teach?" A peculiarly honest answer came out of my mouth before I could think: "Nowhere," I said.

It's true. Since 1990 I have taught and counseled for what a friend of mine calls "keyboard colleges" -- distance-learning degree programs. Where I teach is inside that electrically charged ether that lies between my phone jack and the home computers of a group of far-flung, generally older-than-average college students.

In 1990, I designed America's first online counseling center for distance learners. Since then I've worked with more than 7,000 learners online. I've flunked a few of them. I've never personally met any of them.

For want of a clearer explanation of my career situation, I told the man who inquired that I teach in cyberspace. "I'm a virtual professor," I tried explaining. "Distance learning ... online degree programs ... virtual universities."

The man's face remained as blank as a clear summer sky. I couldn't tell whether he was silent out of respect or keen confusion. I imagined both to be the case, so I settled in to explain what I have to explain frequently these days: the decline of the American college campus and the rise of the American educational mind -- as I see it.

Distance learning, or educational programs where pupil and professor never meet face-to-face, are nothing new. Sir Isaac Pitman of Bath, England, hit upon the idea of having rural residents learn secretarial skills by translating the Bible into shorthand, then mailing these translations back to him for grading. He began doing this in 1840. And he made mounds of money doing it.

I don't teach shorthand; I teach psychology and career development. I write many of my own lessons, though, just as Sir Isaac had to do. My penny post is the World Wide Web. I post assignments to electronic bulletin boards and send graded papers across the international phone lines in tariff-free e-mail packets. I convene classes and give lectures in online chat rooms when need be.

Is this any way to dispense a bona fide college education? Can people learn without sitting in neat rows in a lecture room listening to the professor -- aka the Sage on the Stage?

Yes, absolutely. Hell, why not? In fact, while many people find it hard to imagine a college with no campus, I nowadays find it hard to imagine teaching anywhere other than in the liberal freedom that is cyberspace.

In cyberspace, I listen, read, comment and reflect on what my students have to say -- each of them in turn. What they know, they must communicate to me in words. They cannot sit passively in the back row twiddling their mental thumbs as the clock ticks away. They must think; and horrors of horrors, they must write. Thinking and writing: Aren't these the hallmarks of a classically educated mind?

I know my students not by their faces or their seat position in a vast lecture auditorium; I know them by the words and ideas they express in their weekly assignments, which everyone reads online.

I am not a Sage on the Stage -- I am more a Guide on the Side. Often what the students "say" or write to one another, or the way they incorporate their work and career ideas into their papers and debates with each other, is more practically edifying than anything I could dish their way.

My average college "kid" is 40 years old. More than a few are in their 50s or 60s. They are telecommuting to campus because they could not, or would not, uproot their careers and kids or grandkids to move to a college campus -- an entity modeled after the learning monasteries of medieval times.

Many of them know what they are talking about. Even more so, they know what they came back to college to learn. A cyber-education suits them because it respects their abilities to define for themselves what knowledge is and to go after it. It encourages them to argue their points and their perspectives without the censoring of a professor, who might be tempted to step in to "calm down" or "refocus" an otherwise wonderfully enlightening classroom debate.

They are experiencing something very different from the traditional factory model of American education, in which everyone on the assembly line is delivered the same standardized units of information ( lectures and textbooks) and then must pass the same quality inspection (objective exams). This factory model -- where students sit in neat rows, holding up their hands for permission to speak, clock-watching their way through textbooks and lectures that are broken into discrete knowledge widgets -- has never been shown to be an effective way to learn. It has, however, been proven to be a convenient way for colleges to record on transcripts that a standard body of knowledge has been duly delivered.

Maybe teaching a liberal arts curriculum via a virtual environment makes more sense to me because it harks back to what I learned to be a true liberal arts education. Studying philosophy in Athens, Greece, I was taught that to learn anything, one had to throw away textbooks and notebooks -- mere memory tools -- and instead rely on one's native ability to think critically. (Really -- my philosophy of Plato professor broke my pencil in two and raged at the idea of note-taking.)

I was taught what Plato defined to be the nature of a true liberal education. It is independent of time and place. Real education does not occur on a campus. It occurs in the minds of the students. Good students eschew memory -- a simple learning trick -- in favor of developing their abilities to debate and argue their way through an issue. In short, good students develop their abilities to fling words and ideas at each other with intellectual accuracy.

Plato and his students wandered around Athens arguing their way to understanding. While my cyber-students do have textbooks, the books are learning aids; they are not the only pool of knowledge the students will drink from. Instead, they will learn also from the collaborative efforts of online debates, conferences and papers. They will think about what they have to say, and they will come to class each week amazingly prepared to argue and type their way toward insight.

The virtual university: Oddly enough, it's just what a classical philosopher like Plato would have practiced -- had there been an Internet way back when. Me? I'm in favor of less learning taking place on a campus and more that happens in the minds of the participants.

By Vicky Phillips

Vicky Phillips is an adult education and distance learning pioneer and the author of America's first guide to the virtual graduate school movement, "Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools: Earn Your Degree Without Leaving," forthcoming from the Princeton Review.

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