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Online Class at O.C. College Offers Lesson About Future

Education: Saddleback's oceanography via Internet is regarded as a preview of tomorrow's 'virtual university.'

March 17, 1997|RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those who teach online also say the use of e-mail sharpens students' writing skills and allows for more thoughtful responses to problems.

Kathleen Lant, who teaches a regular, for-credit American literature course over the Web at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, recalled one student from Vietnam who wrote a lengthy, eloquent missive comparing his country's mind-set after the Vietnam War to that of America at the close of the Civil War.

"In a classroom discussion where things go so fast I had never heard that before. I was so moved.

"Some things happen better online."

Students in Saddleback's class by and large say it educates them as well as the classroom version, while honing their computing and research skills.

"I am in wonder and awe that I am able to participate in such a class," said Sanders, who juggles his studies with part-time work at a bookstore. "I've been working on computers since I was 11 and was wondering when, if ever, I would be able to use the computer for something more practical than just typing papers or balancing my checkbook."

Carol Roth, 41, a Laguna Niguel office worker, took the course in part to hone her computer skills, and the course hasn't disappointed in that regard. The recent online midterm examination included 10 bonus questions meant solely to challenge students' Net research proficiency.

But she does miss "face-to-face contact with the professors."

"I attended an orientation with both instructors and realized that if I had the luxury of time, I would prefer to attend the lecture class. Both instructors seemed knowledgeable and interesting."

For all their enthusiasm and advocacy for the class, the professors know well its shortcomings.

Like others who offer online classes, they spend more than twice as much time writing out lectures and other course work for the Net class as the regular one. Hardly a day seems to go by without some technical glitch or a student having trouble sending or receiving work.

Roth said she has figured out ways around the snags. "I've been able to get the information by the weekend, which is when I do the homework and read the lectures. I've started checking early in the week and printing everything so I have it in case the [school's computer] server is down on the weekend."

Perhaps the biggest drawback, the instructors say in remarks echoed by experts: The lack of face-to-face contact and dialogue with the students, sometimes the most effective way of discerning whether their pupils really understand the lesson at hand.

"Good teachers are frustrated thespians," says Huntley. "I tell students, 'It's my three-hour monologue,' and I get to do and say what I want. With the Internet class I don't get that same feeling."

Richard McCullough, dean of Saddleback's mathematics, science and engineering department, said he has approved the cyber-course for next semester because its requirements equal those of the lecture class, even if the work and materials differ.

He said universities across the country, and some abroad, have inquired about the course, a reaction that "turned out to be bigger than I envisioned."

But he, too, has reservations about such online learning, which he sees as an alternative to classroom instruction, not a replacement.

"The depersonalizing of education is one of the major obstacles," he said. "You certainly are going to miss the interaction of students even though there are [electronic] 'chat rooms' and e-mail."

That sentiment has been echoed by the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's largest faculty union, whose Task Force on Technology in Higher Education last year concluded that "a college education must include regular and frequent opportunities, formal and informal, for students to talk with faculty and one another about the content of their classes, their educational and career goals, and their research."

Such concerns may be addressed down the road, as technology improvements expand the use and practicality of real-time video and audio over the Internet, which requires powerful PCs and clearer telecommunication lines.

A report last month by the California Postsecondary Education Commission recognized computerized distance learning as a possible way to help meet the enrollment increases forthcoming at the state's public universities, without building expensive new campuses.

It noted that the Cal State and University of California systems, both of which offer extension courses over the Internet, are studying ways to expand the technology so that regular classes might be offered, too.

Sanders, for one, says he's ready to sign on.

"It' always more entertaining to hear them talk about this stuff but that's the trade-off for the convenience."

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