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
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
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
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
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
Dealing with the student who talks too much and the one who doesn't talk
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.