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It's About Time by Larry D. Gladney

Recently I received a catalog in the mail which announced a new venture in distance learning: earn a Masters in Liberal Arts by watching videotaped lectures of famous professors (including at least two from Penn). Look at any number of newspapers, magazines, or Internet articles and you find a burgeoning number of such attempts to reach, in non-traditional ways, the growing market for non-traditional students. Even at Penn, the move towards residential learning, the use of "new" technologies like the Internet, and the drive to create more programs for continuing education students adds an air of uncertainty, for those who worry about such things, as to what kind of education faculty will be expected to deliver in the next century. As for distance education, it's probably safe to say that, at the least, it makes us uneasy even to contemplate it.

Aside from the possibility that distance learning ventures for non-traditional students may prove to be an important source of revenue for Penn, the challenge of thinking about what constitutes a Penn education for such students gives us ample opportunity to re-explore what we do and why we do it that way even for our primary "customers." In physics, for example, we've known for a long time that the standard methods of lecture-recitation-lab have remarkably little effect in getting students to learn central concepts about how the universe works. There is plenty of evidence from the mid-1970's on that shows that even the better students in our "service" courses often finish our classes with no firm belief in Newton's Laws of Motion. The video that shows students, faculty, and staff at Harvard's 1992 graduation failing miserably at explaining why the earth has seasons is often presented as evidence of how shockingly bad traditionally taught science classes are in making important concepts part of our lifelong knowledge set.

So why is there such reluctance to radically reform classes in the basic sciences (or in a number of other disciplines)? It's not because people don't know how to do it better. Eric Mazur's method for "concept teaching" with peer-instruction in the classroom has been described in at least two previous "Talk About Teaching" articles (e.g., This method, appropriately administered with new technology, focuses classroom time on core concepts through peer discussions and, through classroom voting, provides immediate feedback on student understanding of those concepts while maintaining the economy of scale of large lectures. In principle, votes and peer discussions can be transmitted and recorded from almost anywhere on the planet: in short, an interactive classroom without borders. Yet, despite the success of this method in a variety of institutional settings and the desire to improve science teaching (witness the substantial changes in the undergraduate laboratory experience), the traditional lecture lives on.

One reason why is that the present roles of students and faculty are comfortable, even if a bit creaky. Ultimately, a radical change in how we teach will come from making demands of our courses which are fundamentally different than those engendered by traditional students. To get rid of the lecture, we need a set of students who can't respond to the blackboard and won't sit passively for 50 minutes without some form of interaction. To get faculty to focus more on concepts, we need to provide a means for knowing more about each student's strengths and weaknesses as part and parcel of how a course is run. The same technology that can make distance learning the personally engaging and interactive experience we expect it should be can also incorporate the peer-instruction method in a perfectly natural way. A high-tech version of such a course can have the peer discussion take place through chat rooms much as discussions extended after class take place now for a few of our humanities courses, although considerably more sophisticated software technology would have to be used. Technical problems remain, of course, but the electronics industries seem eager to provide worldwide high-speed access to global information on a fairly short timescale. Anticipating how we can make educational use of this trend might lead to a new path for re-invigorating our roles as teachers for either traditional or non-traditional students.

Some examples of where the communication boundaries of space and time are currently being challenged, even for traditional students, lie with experiments that Penn is already implementing. In the fall of 1997, SEAS presented a complete introductory course in Telecommunications through asynchronous lectures offered, in audio and text, over the Web. Students were allowed considerable flexibility as to when and from where they could "tune in" for extended class discussion and interaction through the computer. This semester, Penn is offering a course on expository writing to 32 early admissions students. The course, directed completely over the Web, makes use of expertise already incorporated into a system that offers remote help on writing to current Penn students. On the science side, an interactive, interdisciplinary textbook on introductory calculus, physics, and chemistry, available only through the Web, serves as the sole text for a credit-bearing course offered during Penn's Pre-Freshman Program. Web accessibility makes it possible to incorporate rich graphics, animations, Java simulations and links straight from the text to science or math topics in the news available over the Internet. The grandest vision of such experiments might have faculty assuming an educational role that is no longer constrained by the view of what constitutes a "classroom" or a "semester." We can imagine a suite of courses which allow high school students who have chosen to come to Penn to do advanced placement at Penn but without requiring a physical presence on campus. Alumni can engage in quantitative classes that are as engaging, interactive, and convenient as the Alumverse course taught by Al Filreis. Finally, proper use of technology allows for an education for any student that is as personalized as we care to make it.

Inevitably, leadership for determining the way we educate students in the next century must come from the faculty, at least for so long as we are not replaced by videotapes and online software. The danger in not being proactive in "embracing and extending" these technologies is not so much in being left behind by them, but being simply left out. Although no one can predict with certainty, it is at least plausible that distance technologies will play a significant role for students of all types in the new millenium. We can run the risk that education, say on the Internet, will become just a new form of television or we can take a dynamic role in shaping it as an educational medium that truly embraces and extends the values we treasure. While it might be too early, or maybe already too late, perhaps it's about time to give a new vision of an interactive form of distance learning a chance.

Talk About Teaching is in its fourth year as a series co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Science and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
Dr. Gladney is associate professor of physics and astronomy in SAS.

Return to:Almanac, University of Pennsylvania, February 17, 1998, Volume 44, Number 22