Virtual Professor + Virtual Student = Real Education


Professor Richard B. Kettner-Polley made the leap from a traditional professor at the beginning of his career at the University of Arizona to his current position as Senior Academic Director at University College of the University of Denver.

His career took some interesting twists to get there. After seven years at the University of Arizona, he left teaching to conduct research in Scandinavia and Germany on Fulbright and NSF grants. Returning to the U.S., he taught at Lewis & Clark College and then at George Fox College, where he was involved in the establishment of an M.B.A. program. He then started his own business venture in an electronic and experimental music store but says he was lured back to academia by the prospect of working at the cutting edge of business education at ISIM University, a virtual institution located in Denver.

For a period of one year at ISIM, he was the only full-time faculty member, worked with 100 students in a dozen countries, and gave exactly one face-to-face lecture.

The article below was excerpted from a paper written by Professor Kettner-Polley that was originally presented at the International Conference on the Social Impact of Technology in St. Louis, Missouri, in October 1998. It was also published by ALN magazine, Spring 1999.

The Making of a Virtual Professor
The role of the professor is changing dramatically. This is a case study in the transformation of one traditional professor into a virtual professor. On one level, this is only one person's story. On another level, it is a sign of the times. Traditional academia is rapidly falling apart, and it is the quiet transformation of traditional professors into virtual professors that tells the true story behind this revolution.

Teaching in the traditional way
For many of us who have been in academia for more than ten years, the computer revolution has gradually overtaken us. Some time ago, it occurred to me that the traditional lecture format had been obsolete for several centuries. Many faculty members are still acting as if information is a scarce resource.

Before the advent of movable type, the lecture format was the most logical means of disseminating information. Large numbers of students gathered in one place, and the learned man expounded on a topic, drawing on the monographs and books that very few people could access.

Even with movable type, books remained expensive luxuries, and few students could afford their own copies of the necessary texts. Eventually, the cost of books dropped to the point where every student could have his or her own copy. At this point, the logical role of the professor changed from disseminator of information from the text to explicator of complex concepts. Unfortunately, many faculty members have, through the centuries, maintained the obsolete role of disseminator.

Students need not participate--reading is considered optional
The major impact of technology in many modern classrooms has not progressed beyond that marvelous innovation: the overhead projector. Instead of writing lecture notes on a chalkboard, the professor prepares transparencies ahead of time and then explains them to the class, occasionally soliciting opinions from the students. This procedure has the advantage of alleviating the need for students to read the material ahead of time. For many of today's students, reading is considered optional. This has gotten to the point where classroom students are often resentful when a professor attempts to generate class discussion without first telling the students what the text says--preferably in a condensed version that includes only the material that will appear on the next exam.

All of this raises two central questions:
What is the appropriate role of the professor in a world in which books are readily available at reasonable costs? (Though many would question the reasonableness of current textbook prices.)
Has that role changed even further with the advent of the Internet, a very inexpensive and almost universally available source of more information than anyone could possible absorb in one lifetime?
The role of the professor in a virtual world
While modern technology has greatly reduced the cost of the printed word, with a resulting explosion in the available volume of publications, print remains an expensive medium of communication. Consequently, most writing goes through a rigorous process of evaluation before it appears in print.

Scholarly publications generally go through a blind review process. As a result, articles and books can be assumed to bring with them a certain level of authority. While the process may be biased, we can at least rest assured that an author's work has been judged by a jury of peers as worthy of publication.

With the advent of the Internet, electronic publication has become extremely inexpensive and almost totally uncontrolled. A search of any topic is likely to yield hundreds of thousands of Web sites. Unfortunately, search engines have no way of evaluating the quality of these sites. Most Web surfers look at the titles of the top twenty or thirty, pick the ones that look most relevant and never even see the titles of the vast majority of the entries.

Professors become sifters of information
This reality has changed the logical role of the professor. Instead of evaluating the available texts and selecting the best, it is necessary to sift through a huge volume of possibilities and recommend the most legitimate. Even the most diligent scholar is unlikely to be able to read even a small fraction of the available material in his or her specialty. This is one reason that the traditional publication process still exists. The blind review process still serves the purpose of separating the valuable from the useless.

The other side of the coin is that the Internet is a democratic medium. Scholars who, for various reasons, cannot get their ideas into print can still disseminate them on the Web. This has changed the nature of research and of scholarly discourse. The clearest example of this is the discussion list. When reading postings, it is often impossible to determine whether the source is a prominent scholar or an unknown student. There is a great advantage to this. For the first time, the quality of thought counts for more than the source. It is possible for a brilliant thinker without credentials to be heard.

All of this places a greater burden on the faculty. Thoughts must be evaluated on their merits. The primary role of faculty members thus becomes selection and evaluation. A responsible faculty member no longer searches for the recognized authorities, but instead searches out the interesting, original, and provocative sources. The ability to quickly evaluate and select sources is a primary skill. It is no longer possible to be familiar with the entire body of work in a specialty. Students no longer need assistance in finding material; they need guidance in separating the legitimate from the illegitimate sources.

Faculty members facilitate this process in two ways:
By selecting and recommending the best sources
By teaching students how to evaluate the quality of sources on their own.
Getting the right faculty is very important. As with traditional universities, the first concern is finding knowledgeable, competent faculty. Technology will never make experts out of novices, and online students expect experts.

What makes a good online professor?
On the other hand, a good classroom professor is not necessarily a good online professor. The virtual classroom requires a different set of interpersonal skills than does the face-to-face classroom. Professors who think that they can teach on line by posting their lectures to the Web are in for a rude awakening. Virtual professors are not merely providers of information. Their role is to select and filter information for student consideration, to provide thought-provoking questions, and to facilitate well-considered discussion.

Making the transition from live to virtual professing
I was a full-time faculty member in traditional business schools for fifteen years. While I had many good experiences in the classroom, I was consistently disappointed by the quality of student participation. It always seemed to me that you could either get a great deal of enthusiasm and participation at a surface level, or you could get limited responses at a deep level.

I have come to the conclusion that the traditional classroom is simply not a good forum for the sort of discussion that I always hoped to have in class. I have also come to the conclusion that this is the fault of neither the faculty nor the student body.

The more thoughtful students benefit from online discussions
If all goes well in a traditional class, students come in having already read the material and are ready to discuss it. In undergraduate classes this is rarely the reality. In graduate classes, probably half of the students will have seriously considered the readings. Of those, perhaps half are comfortable expressing their opinions in class. These are not necessarily the students who are most capable of dealing with the material on a complex level. I have often had the experience of leading a disappointing classroom discussion only to have a couple of very bright students (who remained silent throughout the class discussion) stop me after class and engage me in exactly the sort of dialogue that I had tried so hard to pull from them half an hour earlier in the classroom. The reason for this is simple. While the less-thoughtful students were talking, the more thoughtful ones were still thinking about the question and formulating interesting and relevant responses. Their responses were ready long after the class discussion had moved on.

In contrast, the virtual classroom is asynchronous. Students log on and read the discussion question. They go away and, over the course of the next few hours or the next couple of days, they think about the question and formulate a response. When they log back in, they are ready to give a well-considered response. In my six months at ISIM, I have routinely led the level of discussion that I only dreamed of leading as a traditional professor.

Education, a little bit at a time
As a classroom professor, much of the job involves entertainment. Student attention spans have continued to drop and their threshold of boredom gets lower every year. It is unrealistic to think that a live professor can compete with 200 channels of television and the Web. Still, we keep trying, and the line between education and entertainment continues to erode at the expense of education.

The virtual classroom can be experienced in small doses. View it for a few minutes, read a few postings, and go do something else while the ideas sink in. I still find myself working hard to come up with the most interesting and provocative topics, questions, and observations that I can. But the temptation to entertain without educating is gone.

A few notes on distance
A major concern of both students and faculty when considering distance education is, understandably, distance. A traditional classroom brings students and faculty together in the same place at the same time. The virtual classroom separates students and faculty members both geographically and temporally.

Lectures go one-way
The key issue here is the nature of the relationships between the instructor and the students and among the students. We have all experienced traditional classroom professors who create a huge distance between themselves and their students and who fail to foster communication among students. The traditional lecture format is a one-way communication. Seminars and discussion-oriented classes foster the development of closer interpersonal relationships, but economic pressures are making it harder and harder for traditional universities to justify the small classes required for such formats.

Online classes can be smaller and foster more communication
Online courses, while geographically and temporally separating the participants, may actually foster closer interpersonal relationships than face-to-face classes. First, there is no real barrier to keeping classes small. In the face-to-face settings, smaller classes mean either larger faculties or heavier course loads for the existing faculty members.

Splitting an online class in two does not substantially increase the faculty members' workload. The instructor has the same number of assignments to grade and the same number of postings to respond to. Teaching two online sections instead of one simply means attending to two simultaneous discussion streams. In some ways, having two sections may even make the job easier as the instructor can draw on ideas raised in one section when making comments in the other section's discussion.

This raises an important additional benefit that online teaching brings to the professor. If we consider our primary job to be lifelong learning, the ideas generated in online discussions are simply better and more compelling than those generated in the classroom. Having experienced both, I can say unequivocally that I have always learned from my students, but I have learned much more from my online students than I ever learned in the traditional classroom.

Dealing with the student who talks too much and the one who doesn't talk enough
In the traditional classroom, verbose students can easily dominate class discussion. A skillful professor learns how to cut this off without alienating the over-talker, but time is still lost in the process. In the asynchronous online course, each participant can decide how much time to give to a posting. Verbose postings can be skimmed or ignored. Particularly good postings can be reread and annotated. In addition, long and complicated postings can provide background information that could never be shared verbally in the traditional classroom.

More detail available to those who want it
I am currently teaching business ethics on line. One of my students is from Hong Kong and has posted five or six long discussions of the economic and political forces affecting the East in general and China in particular. Another student in that course works for a bank in the United Arab Emirates and recently posted an article that he wrote describing Islamic economics. These ideas could only be briefly summarized in the traditional classroom, but can be made available in full detail on the Web. It is then up to the individual participant to decide how much time to spend on each posting.

Online instruction forces discussion
One final comment on distance. I have never enjoyed lecturing. To me, the process creates a distance with which I am not comfortable. As a result, I have always conducted all classes as seminars, regardless of size or level. In my last classroom experience, I had one graduate student comment that this was the only course he had ever had which was actually taught via the Socratic method. (I never quite figured out whether that was a compliment or a complaint, but he seemed pleased with the experience.)

Often, particularly in large classes, the experience has not been so positive. In contrast, the online environment almost forces a Socratic method of instruction. The instructor who tries to convey his or her views as authoritative simply looks foolish. To me, one comment from a student in my first online course sums up the potential that the medium allows for reducing student-faculty distance. In his course evaluation he commented that the instructor made him feel as if they were old friends within the first two weeks of class. For the instructor who is comfortable with treating students as friends and colleagues, this medium offers opportunities for establishing relationships that are unparalleled in the traditional classroom setting.

Final comments on becoming virtual
As I mentioned earlier, I've never really enjoyed lecturing. So, becoming a virtual professor has been a positive experience. I find that I can do what I do best--interact with students one-on-one and establish strong individual relationships with my students. The students also seem to me to be more open-minded. I find less stereotyping and judgment in the virtual classroom than in the traditional classroom.

Finally, the quality of the feedback from the students is dramatically better than it was in the traditional classroom. I have never received such consistently positive teaching evaluations. I don't think that I'm doing anything substantially different in this setting from what I did in the classroom. It is simply easier to get complex ideas across through this medium. In addition, I find that I don't get gratuitous negative feedback from students in the virtual classroom. Students make suggestions for improvement, both during the course and in the final evaluations, but I find that they are consistently constructive and helpful.

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