Not every online school is a soulless factory: Readers respond to Alex Wright's "From Ivory Tower to Academic Sweatshop."

Published January 28, 2005 8:30PM (EST)

[Read the story.]

As an IT professional who has been working in the distance-learning field since 2000, articles like Alex Wright's fascinate me in that they tell only one side of the story.

I have worked at the Fletcher School for the global master of arts program since before its launch in 2000 and have seen this small but very effective program grow and exceed all of our expectations. It is in fact based on a program started at Duke in 1996 (Wright's article interestingly implies that Duke has only recently become involved with distance learning) and does not use the University of Phoenix "correspondence school" model.

While we target mid-career professionals who could use a master's to further their career (and who cannot afford to leave their jobs or families), that is about all we have in common with most of the programs described in the article by Mr. Wright.

We use a model that combines classroom learning and Internet-mediated instruction. In our three-semester one-year program students start each semester in residency (usually at Tufts, but one is in a foreign location -- we just returned from Singapore), which last for two weeks. During this time they are in class, often six days a week, usually 9 to 5. At Tufts they live on campus. In a foreign residency we all stay at the same hotel (where classes are held in the meeting rooms). They meet their fellow classmates and their professors and develop real bonds with all -- in most cases tighter bonds than they would in a normal on-site program. This is so very different than most distance-learning courses discussed, in which the distance and technology provide barriers to meeting classmates and faculty, and no one ever sees anyone else face to face.

In fact in our foreign residencies, since we are all in the same hotel, students find themselves sharing meals and other activities with faculty and get to know them better than if they just had classes with them.

Then, at the end of the two weeks, everyone returns to their normal lives and continues the class work online, with a laptop we provide. They keep in touch using very basic technologies such as e-mail and discussion groups. They have online asynchronous discussions. They complete projects and tests. They "attend" lectures that were not covered in the residency via CD-ROMs and DVD-ROMs that we on the tech staff create working closely with the faculty.

As the students have met each other and the faculty as well, the online discussions are very lively and poignant. Online discussion also gives those shy students more opportunity to speak up as they can be more thoughtful and measured in their words typing, rather than speaking in front of everyone.

And we place each student in a team so that they may encourage each other when work and school work is overwhelming and complete different projects together.

As a school of international relations, our students exist all over the world and create bonds and friendships and, therefore, contacts in various international businesses, governments and NGOs that would have been impossible for them to make otherwise.

We have had students from Rwanda discuss their personal experiences with the tragic genocide, seen Pakistanis and Indians become close friends, had people from the corporate world understand the conditions of U.N. workers in places like the Gaza Strip, and had folks from Central American governments learn how to deal with European companies.

Simply put, it has been an amazing program to watch grow and flower over the past five years, and yet every time the distance-learning discussion comes up in the press, I only see the negative correspondence factory schools covered. I never see anything written about our program (which is admittedly small -- about 40 students a class) or similar ones that, while never a complete substitute for full in-class learning, allow so many wonderful and valuable teaching experiences become possible and truly aid our understanding of the global village.

I invite everyone to check out our program and learn about the positive aspects of distance learning at the Fletcher School, and know that, despite all the corporate products masquerading as online universities, there really is a valuable and legitimate version of distance learning flourishing right now.

-- Chris Barrett

I attended the University of Phoenix online for a couple of years working on my MBA. I can tell you that it is not a cakewalk to take classes online. Trying to work in group projects with people in different time zones was enough to drive you crazy. I took five classes with them and had only two professors that were engaged with the class. Those were the best classes. The other three, while still being difficult, were not as enjoyable because I didn't benefit from the input of the professor during discussions. That is one of the reasons I stopped taking classes. The other reason was the program had become so popular that it became a nightmare to submit work because the servers were up and down. In the end the main reason was that I missed the interaction that a classroom can provide. I think the best education is a combination of classroom and online.

-- Angela Hunter

One thing that was not covered in this article is the cost of these courses. I was thinking of taking a few courses so I started comparing the Internet-based costs to actual tuition for some schools and found that there isn't all that much difference. This is a cash cow for the universities. They are saving a bundle in "plant" costs (building upkeep, insurance, heat, electricity...), enrolling more students than they previously could handle, and dishing out a shrink-wrapped product to them. All this, while charging only a couple hundred dollars less than if the student had to show up. Now that the universities have the gimmick structured, and until more people start thinking about the costs related to the product, this Internet money maker is going to thrive.

-- Susan Appelbaum

By Salon Staff

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