Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Virtual Classroom

"Online Colleges Receive a Boost from Congress" in today's New York Times announces the decision of legislators to allow distance learning campuses that provide the majority of their instruction virtually rather than via traditional classrooms or lecture halls to be eligible to receive federal student aid. The Times interprets this decision as a setback for "nonprofit" institutions of higher learning, such as those in the University of California system where I work. The Bush administration has long been lobbying for this legislation of behalf of "nontraditional students." Of course, the influence of for-profit colleges in this policy decision isn't hard to surmise. It also may be yet another manifestation of outright hostility toward traditionally "liberal" colleges that have challenged the White House on both scientific and ethical grounds.

(Given today's other revelation in the news that a White House teleconference acquired by the Associated Press shows that the President was thoroughly briefed in advance about Hurricane Katrina by scientists and emergency planners, but he still failed to comprehend the enormity of the risk to the Gulf Coast, the potential fallibility of distance learning is demonstrable, particularly when our Chief Executive is the student.)

Less obviously, the decision about online colleges is also a disaster for "hybrid learning" initiatives that combine the best of both instructional worlds. By tipping the balance toward lower cost online-only solutions, the complementary use of technology to enrich classroom learning won't get the funding it continues to need. Smart uses of technology can improve our students' information literacy, model digital communication and interpretation skills, and streamline feedback and assessment mechanisms. Many busy faculty members are already reluctant to experiment and may even resent digital communication with their students, as a recent New York Times article on professors and e-mail, "To Why It's All about Me," indicates. University extension courses, which provide a valuable service to our surrounding community, are already providing more content via remote control to compete with private for-profit degree and certificate granting programs.

Luckily, some "virtual classroom" research is designed to improve the quality of "live" face-to-face interactions, particularly with elementary and secondary school students. The Virtual Classroom is a virtual reality environment that simulates the 3-D environment of a traditional blackboard classroom with pupils in desks. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder children can be tested for their responses to various distracting stimuli in the periphery: a red car driving by that is visible through the window, a man entering the classroom via a door, or a paper airplane floating through the class.

I learned about this research from the SIGGRAPH talk of Albert "Skip" Rizzo of USC's Institute for Creative Technologies. Dr. Rizzo's talk began with a photograph of Sigmund Freud wearing a virtual reality headmount and contained information about several research initiatives and test programs relevant to the Virtualpolitik Project, which I will integrate into future items in this blog.

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Blogger Julia Lupton said...

I am interested to learn about the "hybrid" approach to technology and teaching. This makes a lot of sense to me. I am hoping to experiment with podcasting next quarter. No, I won't podcast lectures (which would cut down on faculty-student contact hours), but rather peripherals, such as a question asked in office hours, or elements of a field trip. My advisor in these matters, Steve Franklin of UCI's Academic Computing, has suggested that the best bits for educational podcasting would look like this:
SHORT (like an I-tune, for easy download and consumption, like a pedagogical snack)
DIALOGIC (involving the voice of a studdent as well as the instructor).
I'll let you know how it goes.

5:48 AM  

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