Education in the Electronic Ether: On Being a Virtual Professor
by Vicky Phillips
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?" said he. "Where do
you teach?" A peculiarly honest answer came out of my mouth before I could
think. "No where," said I.
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 the electrically charged ether that lies between my phone
jack and the home computer 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. I've worked since then with over 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 tell the man
who inquired that I teach in cyberspace. "I'm a virtual professor, " I try
explaining. "Distance learning .... online degree programs ... virtual
The man's face remains as blank as the sky on a summer day. I cannot tell
whether he is silent out of respect or keen confusion: I imagine both to
be the case, so I settle 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 not anything new. Sir Isaac Pitman of Bath,
England, hit upon the idea of having rural learners learn secretarial
skills by translating the Bible into shorthand, then mailing these
translations back to him for grading. This he began doing in 1840.
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 a valid way to dispense a bona fide college education? Can people
learn without sitting in neat rows in a lecture room listening to the
professor or a Sage on the Stage? Yes, absolutely. 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 the 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 they must write. Thinking and writing: what else but these things are
the hallmark of a classically educated mind?
I know my students not by their faces or their seat position in a vast
lecture auditorium (as is the case on many campuses today), I know them by
the words and ideas they express in their weekly assignments that everyone
reads online. I am not a Sage on the Stage. I am a Guide on the Side.
Often what my 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
My average college kid is 40 years old. Not a few are in their 50s or
their 60s. They are telecommuting to campus because they could not or
would not uproot their careers and kids or grand kids to move to a college
campus -- an entity itself modeled after the learning monasteries of
Many of them know what they are talking about; more so they know what they
came back to college to learn. A cyber-education suits them because it
respects their ability to define and execute what knowledge is for them.
It encourages them to argue in words 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
The idea that the American mind is best taught using a factory model --
where students sit in neat rows, holding up their hands for permission to
speak, clock-watching their way through textbooks and lectures which are
broken into discrete knowledge widgets -- has never been shown to be an
effective way to learn. It has been shown to be a convenient way for
colleges to transcript that a standardized body of knowledge has been
dutifully delivered. The American factory model. Everyone on the assembly
line is delivered the same standardized units of information (re: lectures
and textbooks); they then all must pass the same quality inspection (re.
Maybe teaching a liberal arts curriculum via a virtual environment makes
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 really learn anything one had to throw away their textbooks and their
notebooks. Throw away these memory tools -- in their place rely instead on
one's native ability to critically think through a situation.
I was taught what Plato knew 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 at each other with amazing
Plato and his students wandered around Athens arguing their way into
understanding. While my cyber-students do have textbooks, their books are
learning aides -- not the only pool of knowledge they will drink from.
Instead, they will drink 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 into insight.
The virtual university: oddly enough it's just what a classicist like
Plato would have practiced had there been an Information Superhighway way
back when. Me? I'm in favor of less learning that takes places on-campus
and more learning that takes places in the minds of the participants.