Someone asked me to describe [what I mean by] "alternative" to the classroom. It's a difficult task because the alternative is in the process of becoming and therefore doesn't and won't exist in the terms we are familiar with. To borrow a concept from the novel Flatland, it's like creatures who live in four dimensions trying to describe conditions in a five dimensional universe. In some ways, massive universal, personal, interactivity and access to knowledge is going to act like a fifth dimension added to those of space and time. But, at the risk (and even probability) of sounding quite foolish, let me try.
In order to make the familiar strange, let's take your ("you" as generic teacher) classroom out of the warm, friendly building you're used to going to work in every day and put it into a Salvidor Dali landscape as a large box suspended above the ground by cables dissappearing up into the clouds. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 9:00 am, 25 students climb up a ladder into that box and for fifty minutes take orders from you. Things that you wouldn't require of anyboy outside the box or before 9:00 MWF or after 9:50 MWF, you require of them quite naturally.
You give orders; they accept them.
If they don't accept them, you tell them to leave "your" classroom. If they don't leave, you call the police, and the police will come and remove those people who don't follow your orders. You have no such authority, of course, if you met the same people on the street. You can imagine what would happen if you asked a group of people on the street to form a peer discussion group and mull over irony in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner for twenty minutes or so.
No matter what the quality of the teacher, the box provides the constraints that engender what Robert Brooke calls the "underlife" phenomenon, the very natural tendency for students to resist whatever a managerial teacher imposes upon them, a dynamic that necessarily acts as a "choke coil" on everything the teacher tries to do and largely leads to the massive frustrations inherent in modern teaching, often resulting in teachers' complaints against "preparation," television, drugs, lack of parental involvement, and even the apparently unavoidable increasing stupidity and lack of motivation of the students themselves. All things that a teacher has no control over.
Now, obviously, some good instructional things happen in that box between 9 to 9:50, or else, as some kids would like to believe, formal education is simply the revenge of one generation on another for being younger. The trick is to isolate in specific terms what those "good instructional things" are and then see if they can be removed from the box. Why? Because practically nobody is satisfied with what goes on in the box these days, and practically no amount of reform ever affects the great, great majority of boxes out there.
This is not a new effort, of course, trying to take formal learning out of the box. Correspondence classes have been trying for generations to use postal mail, audio tapes, video tapes, broadcast and cable TV, and even the telephone to extend the formal learning situation beyond the box. But these technologies are so obviously cumbersome in delivering whatever it is that goes on in the box that they are used as only a very weak alternative, only for those students who for various reasons can't make it to the box at the proper times.
Enter, suddenly (and it was sudden), the fifth dimension (the age of Aquarius?), the awesomely compelling technology of networked computers, creating the possibility of an effective noosphere, the sort of societal overmind that may transform how individuals appropriate their society's enabling knowledge. Yeah, yeah, I know, it all sounds H.G. Wells-ish and utopian and hacker-chic, but it seems to be happening rather aggressively "out there," and undoubtedly, like it or not, the effects of this noosphere thing will reach the box, and actually already has in many places.
But the computer-based classroom, while undoubtedly making the too, too solid walls of the box look more like swiss cheese, is still in a single time-space. It had to be this way because students couldn't get to computers and certainly not to connected computers. Up to now. Now, however, on more and more campuses, the entire student body has connection to the noosphere either on their own machines and modems, on dorm machines and modems, on the proliferating computing access points here, there, and everywhere. Lots of you out there don't have that situation yet and perhaps despair of it coming to you anytime soon, but I tend to believe that it's coming faster than we may think and we should prepare for it. According to the last issue of ACM, 37% of American households have personal computers and the recent huge leap in moving computers into the home is largely the result of what the Web and email offers. The percentage of college students who have computers is much higher.
Just as we have the classroom as a box hanging in the air, let's assume that everyone has an Internet and email machine and a connection that operates with the universality and ease of the telephone. It may come to happen within the next 10 years, who knows. Right now on TV, in front of me, is a commercial for WebTV, and the variety of web and email access devices that don't depend on a PC base seems to be expanding quickly, making the "telephonization" of Internet and web access more and more likely.
In the box, the principal medium of interaction is oral and visual, spoken words and body language, and largely restricted by turn-taking (single channel). Through the noosphere, the principal medium right now is the written word in asynchronous and synchronous patterns, and is much less restricted by turn-taking (multiple channels) and the need for simultaneity. Most of the people in this thread who have tried to describe what will be lost without f2f have been pointing to the intangibles of "presence" and personality, the "guru effect," and the assumption that the written word, even with all the immediacy and informality provided by email and MOOs and the web, cannot convey presence and personality effectively, especially the teacher's presence and personality.
The assumption, therefore, is that it is our felt presence and personality that effectively charges the learning situation, and that that felt presence is essential to the student's learning (as opposed to a presumably "lesser felt" presence conveyed online).
In some cases the charisma of the teacher is very useful in the student's learning, and many of us became teachers because we responded to a teacher's charisma, wanting to invoke that power ourselves. In many other cases, probably in many more cases, the presence and personality of the teacher and the constraints of authority impede learning, leading us to the eternal question of why the more most students go to school, the less inquisitive they become and the less they like learning.
A possible contention, as a corrective to this deadening of most students as they progress through the system, is that the channels of the noosphere may be invoked to draw the best things that happen in the box out of the box and away from a very shaky total dependence on the presence and personality of the teacher, which often rests on a debilitating (for learning) personal control.
So the content of a course can be delivered with greater immediacy than in the box through the web, and email and MOOs can provide a much greater variety of channels of interaction than possible in the box. The teacher becomes even more vital than in the box, but now as the "guide on the side," losing the physical managerial presence but retaining a virtual managerial presence, as the person who guides the very complex interactions of the learners over distance.
Ironically, I believe that with this distance between teacher and student comes a greater intellectual co-location, a healthier partnership, largely as a result of the felicities of written conversation or e-dialogism. But that may be too speculative to dwell on here.
But the students are not "told what to do" in anything like the same way they are in the box. In simplest terms (and I'm really not sure how all this will unfold -- not at all a liability in this very uncertain of professions), students will be working collaboratively to solve problems framed by the teacher, the solving of which encourages the construction of new personal knowledge and the practice of active skills. Those that want f2f access to the teacher and their classmates can try to arrange those on their own, not be scheduled into such. There may be times (as I am establishing in my courses in the spring) when the teacher is regularly available f2f in lab situations to help individuals or online groups who show up f2f with any writing or technology problems they encounter.
My courses, which I am calling "onsite distance education" will be available for anybody to observe on the web, and so will all student interaction. Those of you who feel that such a classless course is insanity will be able to view me go down in flames as it happens. I'll pass on the URL as I get the pages slicked up for the spring.
The thing that will make such classroomless classes work, and probably won't be seen as effective for several years, will be a structure of activities that not only encourages "the 'real' stuff" but which engages the student at a level below overt coercion, at a level that mostly subverts the underclass phenomenon and taps into a sense of enlightened self-interest. Students, for instance, engage in OWL activity from self-interest, from a sense that OWL consultants are honestly there to help them. Wouldn't it be nice if students could feel the same way about their composition instructors?
I agree with those of you who say that such idealistic pedagogical implementations have failed in the past, but just as Babbage's 1840 computer wouldn't work because 1840's society couldn't provide it the proper machine tooling, I think that earlier ideas that sought to open up the box didn't and couldn't work because society couldn't provide communication technology that could compete with f2f.
Now, since 1992, I think that society can provide that technology, and it approaches the qualities of de Chardin's noosphere. Our first efforts to use it will undoubtedly be crude and will be subject to all the evils both flesh and the computer are heir to, but if we don't lay out the ground rules for such classes early on, surely Microsoft and Netscape and Sun will.
Thanks for reading this far and I apologize for the length. I don't mean to be bullying anybody or screaming at anybody, and if it comes across that way I apologize. It promises to be an exciting semester for me, and I hope for you.