Can distance learning work for Williams?

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Is it coming to this? Will attending Williams or other elite colleges become more virtual than actual? Probably not, but some at Williams and elsewhere argue that this is the direction that higher education is, or should be, moving.

The University of Massachusetts has recently decided to include distance education in its curriculum, becoming one of many schools to adopt the program in the past several years. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1998, over 78 percent of public four-year colleges and 19 percent of private four-year colleges offered distance education courses. Moreover, the integration of new technologies into on-campus instruction is a major focus of most institutions. Yet at Williams, traditional pedagogical methods prevail, and according to Mark Taylor, Cluett Professor of Humanities and Religion, there is a reluctance to explore new, technology-based approaches.

An Ad Hoc Technology Committee examined the possibility of distance education at Williams in 1999 and, according to the report, “emerged nearly unanimous in our skepticism about the appropriateness and viability of on-line courses” but was “much more enthusiastic. . .about the effectiveness of web materials as supplements to classroom learning.”

Distance education can be many different things, from interactive online classes to supplementary classroom materials relayed online. The first attempts at bringing education online were little more than videotaped lectures in “real-time,” often choppy and fragmented due to slow connection speeds.

Taylor sees more potential for this medium, however. He co-founded Global Education Network (GEN) in 1999 with Williams alum and financier Herb Allen ’62. GEN’s mission is to “develop the highest quality courses in the humanities, arts and sciences, and to distribute them to a worldwide audience at an affordable price.” Taylor contends that distance education is “not doing the same thing differently, but something different.”

GEN’s online courses these days bear little resemblance to the rough presentations of the past years, Taylor said. In GEN’s courses, he said, animated characters explain molecular bonding, students solve mysteries using calculus and streaming video delivers high quality graphics. GEN’s courses are a “seamless transition from South Park to Calculus,” said Taylor. However, producing these courses “can take a team of four to five people, four months, and lots of money.”

In 1999, a proposed partnership between GEN and Williams College was considered by the Ad Hoc Committee on Technology. At the time, GEN was producing a less polished version – what the committee called the “talking head” model. The committee reported it as “unimaginative” and “clunky,” and recommended that the college not undertake a distance education initiative.

While GEN’s proposal offered an interesting vision of new educational methods, the committee did not believe it could be successful at Williams. “It was not a good thing for Williams to be involved with,” Kim Bruce, professor of computer science, said. “Distance education takes away the effect of the teacher. Human contact makes a huge amount of difference.” The committee feared that the classroom intimacy and the student-faculty relationship, a vital part of a Williams education, would be lost if some courses were taught online. Taylor, however, suggests that Williams faculty “over-idealizes the face-to-face” or, as he calls it, the “metaphysics of presence.”

Still, some professors have been able to integrate technology and online learning into their classes at Williams. Taylor and several other professors have videotaped lectures that are available for view through the Williams homepage. Edward Burger, professor of Math, has created CD-ROM video, interactive, mathematics texts and courses for Thinkwell.com. Other professors at Williams have begun to use Blackboard to interact with students through discussion boards.

Small classes and close, supportive relations with professors are a hallmark of academic life at Williams.  Are new instructional technologies a complement or a threat to Williams and to the quality of education it offers?  Over the next two weeks, we will address this question by exploring some of these technologies, from the ubiquitous (e-mail, Blackboard, library on-line catalogs and reference tools) to more sophisticated interactive instructional tools.  We’ll consider how they enhance the educational experience of Williams students and how these new media may detract from it.  We will also examine the extent to which Williams students have integrated these new technologies into their academic lives, and the tricks they can share and the pitfalls and dead-ends they can help us avoid. Â

A favorite quote about a Williams education is U. S. President James Garfield’s observation that, “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.”  The model of education embedded in that metaphor continues to represent the values guiding Williams’ academic planning.  The question is whether Hopkins’s log will be displaced by the invitation to log-on.