You can find them at every university. The professor who strives for an air of casual cool from his perch atop a table at the front of the classroom, his bare legs poking out from a pair of shorts too faded and too short to command respect. The professor whose monotone voice, nervous ticks and intermittent “umm”s compose a symphony that plays on and on until class is dismissed. The one who seems to melt before your eyes as sweat pours from his forehead and darkens his shirt regardless of the season.
And the one whose mismatched wardrobe, blue flesh and burning cigar prompt whispers at the back of the room.
Yes, blue skin and a cigar. Such was the virtual reality for Briana Bashaw, 20, a San Diego State University junior who took a course last fall via the online phenomenon Second Life.
“When I logged into class, I thought, These people are absolutely crazy,” Bashaw said, referring to her instructor, Suzanne Aurilio, whose avatar was dressed in a virtual Halloween costume. “It's hard to pay attention when your teacher is a big, scary troll bouncing around. You can't take them seriously.”
Professors shrouded in virtual alter egos may one day become commonplace as universities turn to online technologies to cope with increasing enrollment, decreasing budgets and a diversifying student body. Second Life by Linden Labs, a three-dimensional virtual world complete with a self-sufficient economy and real-estate market and its own wave of crime, is the cutting edge of tools being tapped by academia. But new professorial clichés are the least significant of changes forcing scholars to take a critical look at where higher education might be headed.
“If you imagined your entire college career in which you only talked to people through online tools, you'd feel like there was a real void there,” said Peter Andersen, an SDSU communications professor. “Education isn't about facts, but a rich sense of connection to people and knowledge.”
“Distance learning,” the classification for educational programs that employ online technology for more than 50 percent of class meetings, is considered by administrators nationwide to be a viable alternative to the 500-seat lecture hall. When students sign the roll sheet from their computers at home, a lecture hall is freed up on campus for another class. For administrators, this equation adds up to higher enrollment capacity and greater access to education. But it has also resulted in a careful measure of quality versus efficiency. Though academics like Andersen say they support advances in distance learning, they caution campus policymakers and students of the potential for universities to feel like a “brick in the wall”-style factory where the Internet acts as the conveyor belt.
Aurilio is the assistant director of People, Information and Communication Technologies (pICT), an SDSU program funded by Qualcomm that trains professors to adopt new technology as a means of increasing students' digital literacy. She described the program's role as a quality-assurance department of sorts. Aurilio said a pragmatic approach to learning, in which the emphasis is placed on the academic degree and its attendant income bracket rather than a liberal-arts education, is a modern reality that educators need to work within rather than around. She's a proponent of embracing non-traditional teaching methods and learning to make the best of it.
“It's easy to think that we're making decisions because of efficiency,” Aurilio said, this time with a tidy brunette ponytail and human complexion. “That's not untrue. In fact, we have to. There's more people entering higher education than ever before, so how do we accommodate all of those students and provide quality education?
“Efficiency gets a bad reputation, but that's because it's always thought of in terms of cutting rather than reallocating,” she continued. “When you have limited resources, you have be creative about how you're going to use them.”
Aurilio and her colleagues in SDSU's Instructional Technology Services Department believe virtual classrooms actually offer a better learning experience than the impersonal lecture hall.
“One would think that because I am sitting across town from you that our relationship is somehow compromised, but if you sit in a classroom with 499 other students, your relationship with the professor is radically compromised,” Aurilio said. “Some students notice that because you have different kinds of interactions online—e-mail, discussion boards—that there is the potential for more of a sense of intimacy with the faculty member.”
Aurilio, who finished her undergraduate degree at age 30, said she felt more comfortable participating when she wasn't sitting with a group of 20-somethings. Andersen, the SDSU communications professor, said online interaction can also be more effective for non-native English speakers who might need more time crafting their statements, students with disabilities who might benefit from remaining at home for class and shy students who dread the moment when hundreds of students shift in their seats to get a good look at them. Such students have new communication methods at their fingertips online: one-on-one chats, discussion boards and video and voice capabilities.No tool simulates face-to-face interaction better than Second Life. Though technical glitches still arise, users can communicate using the same nuances as real-life dialogue; passersby can eavesdrop while volume controls allow whispering. Users have endless choices to develop their online identity in avatar form and facial expressions and body language are quickly growing more sophisticated.
For education, Second Life provides a sense of physical space for students to meet in and explore. Student Bashaw said the ability to meet with her class in gardens or floating on a lake on SDSU's virtual campus helped the exchange feel more casual. Students can also meet in other parts of the Second Life world—for instance, at the base of a virtual Eiffel Tour, where they might speak with a French user who can see the real landmark from his or her window.
Bashaw and Aurilio said such interactions could contribute to a more cosmopolitan generation of learners who would possess greater multicultural awareness.
James Hogg, a professor at the University of Central Florida who is studying Second Life's educational uses, has implemented the program into his event-planning class. His students simulate real-life occasions online, as well as learn about the growing trend in virtual conventions. Virtualis, the Second Life convention center, hosts industry conventions with workshops and keynote speakers similar to those held on San Diego's waterfront, except that none of the attendees purchase a plane ticket or book a hotel room. In the same vein, Hogg said he brings hospitality professionals from all over the world into his classes for panel discussions via Second Life. Their avatars are made life-sized using a projector while Hogg relays his students' questions.
SDSU, however, is still a long way from using Second Life on a regular basis, and Aurilio warns it may never happen as new programs crop up that are better suited for education. But more faculty are developing courses mediated through Blackboard, which acts as a virtual bulletin board that students can use to check grades, download documents, post assignments and now sit in on live class sessions complete with slide shows, video, narration and discussion.
Ethan Singer, SDSU's associate vice president of academic affairs, launched an initiative to offer more of these courses in a 100-percent online format this summer. Psychology instructor Mark Laumakis teaches one and said he's only gotten positive feedback from his students, some who are as far away as Hawaii and Sweden, all earning grades equal to their full face-to-face counterparts.
“I fail to see why students and professors should show up to a classroom where the students are copying words from a slide and where the professors can't even distinguish the enrolled faces,” said Valerie Granillo, 21, an SDSU senior enrolled in Laumakis' course. “I've taken this class before through face-to-face class time and found that this session is more interactive and motivating.”
Those who spoke with CityBeat said online courses are also beneficial because they create greater access for non-traditional students. EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit organization focused on information technology, reports that 45 percent of undergraduate students nationwide and a third in the California State University system are older than 25 and work full-time. That number is projected to grow 20 percent by 2015. What's more, many 18- to 24-year-olds also work and care for a family.
“They have a range of responsibilities and life situations that emulate what somebody 10 years older than them might have,” Aurilio said of the traditional college demographic. “So they come to school with a different bunch of stuff in their backpack.”
Amy Rundle, who is also enrolled in Laumakis' summer session, is a single mother and said online courses make it possible for her to remain a full-time student and watch her 16-month-old daughter grow. When online courses aren't available, Rundle said, she spends full days on campus only to return home and find that her daughter looks bigger and has learned something without the help of her mother.
Distance learning “is convenient where someone has needs at home but also needs to fulfill a class requirement,” she said.Nearly all students are non-traditional in the sense that they will enter a workforce increasingly dependent on the information economy. Hogg said he aims to engage his students on multiple levels so they develop the technical skills industries want. What's more, he said research supports the idea that students who are enriched by media and technology perform better.
“I've spoken with mothers who are concerned about their kids doing homework with the laptop open, iTunes playing and multiple instant messages open,” Hogg said. “If you were to unplug them and shut the music off, they wouldn't be performing at the same level as before, and they'd get bored.”
Additionally, Aurilio said, online courses place the responsibility for learning in the hands of the student because studying is more self-directed. She said this turns students into lifelong learners prepared to adapt to multiple career paths.
But Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at SDSU and author of the book Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable than Ever Before, warns that online learning might be counterproductive in the workplace. Twenge spent 14 years comparing surveys completed by Baby Boomers to those completed by respondents born after 1970, people she places in the “GenMe” category. She's found that GenMe-ers are more self-centered and detached from authority and collaboration than their predecessors. She said the digital world is one place to lay blame.
“When you have a group of people who communicate with friends through Facebook and in online courses out of convenience, it's more difficult to work as a team,” said Twenge, who also consults in the private sector. “I talk to businesses that say they get a lot of young people who are fantastic, but many others who only want to know what a company can do for them.”
The Internet can bring people together across vast distances, but there's still a loneliness and estrangement we're facing as asynchronous communication results in greater individualism, Andersen said. He advocates for “blended” courses that mix face-to-face and online interactions.
“Human interaction that goes back a million years is at the apex of human experience,” he said. “Only what I intend to happen happens on the Internet, but in face-to-face, all kinds of wonderful things can happen.”
Both Aurilio and Laumakis were hesitant to say what distance learning might look like in SDSU's future. But they agreed on some predictions: More online courses will be offered to keep up with student demand, greater research will go into possibilities like Second Life and SDSU will never consider itself a distance-learning institution.
“Teaching online is not for everyone, so we will never be a distance-education institution and nowhere near it,” Aurilio said. “And we don't have a sense from the provost or the president that distance education is what we want to do.”
But Aurilio and Laumakis' envious gaze toward the University of Central Florida might be an indication of things to come. SDSU has called UCF a role model for distance education, a place where 99 percent of undergraduates will take one or more online course in their college careers, Hogg said.
And what administrators want is not always what students want. The majority of students who spoke to CityBeat said they want to see more online courses offered during their tenure at SDSU and worry little about the quality of their education being compromised by technology.
“We can't meet the demand with traditional bricks and mortar,” Laumakis said.