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Online Courses: Pedagogical Implications and Opportunities

Robert V. Steiner directs the Distance Learning Project at Teachers College, Columbia University. During the current year, the Distance Learning Project will offer more than 40 online courses with over 600 expected enrollments. Dr. Steiner is a member of the adjunct faculty of the Program in Science Education at Teachers College and has served as a former principal investigator for the National Science Foundation in experimental elementary particle physics. He can be reached at

Online learning is a new field in which new tools, methods of discourse, information resources, and learning environments are appearing daily. Nobody has a lock on this field. It is an area that is providing fertile ground for exploring ideas about the effective use of digital technologies in education.

For those in academia considering new or modified career paths, online learning merits close scrutiny. Technology-mediated research, teaching, and outreach efforts are already beginning to reshape much of higher education; the pace of change is not likely to slacken in the near future. As a result, there is a real need for talented individuals with an understanding of academic content, pedagogy, multimedia, databases, and/or project management. For many of us, there is a real sense of being "present at the creation" of an exciting new era in teaching and learning, with the potential for widespread impact.

Whether considered as a career option or not, online learning does indeed contain the seeds of a revolution in teaching and learning. When one combines content, instructional design, technology, curriculum design, and graphical design expertise, wondrous things (and sometimes, admittedly, less than wondrous things) can happen. Participants now routinely view multimedia, engage in dialogue (with each other or with far-flung guests), access digital libraries, work on collaborative projects, engage in simulations, and much more. These activities occur among participants who are often physically dispersed and who set their own schedule. But what are the pedagogical implications of these activities?

Web-based courses, in which the course participants typically meet only online and engage in text-based discussion, do not allow instructors to make direct eye contact, listen to vocal inflections, or watch body language. The spontaneity and immediacy of a traditional classroom experience are lacking. While research is inconclusive on the pedagogical value of these cues, these deprivations cause understandable concern among many educators as to the appropriateness of online learning--particularly in situations where face-to-face contact occurs infrequently or not at all.

On the other hand, what many consider to be the lost art of writing may be at least partly revived in such a course, greater reflection may be possible, and students who are not comfortable expressing themselves in class may feel more comfortable doing so in this setting. In addition, online discussion is unfettered by time restrictions or by dominance by a few vocal students--indeed, the Web can sometimes seem to be a more democratic environment than the classroom.

The power of online learning depends, at least in part, upon the availability of powerful tools for collecting, filtering, and manipulating information, as well as tools for the design and development of new media for teaching and learning. These include a variety tools (most of which are waiting to be developed) that can:

  • serve as extended scrapbooks for gathering information

  • facilitate exploration of data sets

  • annotate digital text and video

  • provide qualitative assessments

  • integrate different media

  • create role-playing simulations

  • freely adapt to wide ranges of available bandwidth

By connecting participants who may be widely separated in physical location, online courses sometimes include individuals whose personal and/or professional experience may be more diverse than students in a traditional setting. By engaging participants in both live and asynchronous communications, and by utilizing powerful software for the structuring and facilitation of group communications, online learning provides new forms for intellectual engagement. By utilizing a medium as rich with information resources as the Internet, online courses provide students a remarkable opportunity for discovery and self-guided work.

In addition, online courses provide a good opportunity for inquiry-based, collaborative learning. Rather than deliver what has been termed "the lecture worsened," instructors are motivated to explore how they can take advantage of the unique features of the Web to actively engage students in suitably guided investigations and discourse. Scientific data can be simulated or remotely collected, analyzed, and viewed online. Environmental problems, for example, can be simulated and placed in a social and cultural context, allowing participants to play various roles in an interactive scenario. Such activities can stimulate critical thinking and can help develop both familiarity and skill with the techniques of scientific research. The remote steering of powerful telescopes, the global collection of migratory data, and participation in an antarctic exploration are just a few examples of what has already taken place online.

One result of the growth of online education has been the development of "course modules"--prepared content that can be seamlessly plugged into an online course, nearly or completely erasing the boundaries between what an individual instructor has prepared and what has been provided by an electronic publisher. Some of these modules may provide spectacular materials with high production values to students. At the same time, their presence could also promote a more homogenized experience with the widespread adoption of particularly popular "killer" modules. Such developments underscore the need for good judgment on the part of the instructor, aided by strong faculty support, in selecting and integrating the disparate tools and materials available in online learning.

Online learning is about improving educational quality, about breaking down barriers of distance and time, and, at least for some, about the generation of new revenue streams. It provides us with a unique opportunity to create new, more effective models for teaching and learning. It is the responsibility of educators to actively involve ourselves in the exploration of these forefront developments while remaining faithful to the best interests of both current and future generations of students.