Online education: issues and some answers

As we move to meet the educational needs of working adults in a mobile society, our conception of the university must extend beyond place and embrace process. An adult university cannot be campus bound, rather its borders must be defined by the lives of its students…”

founder and chairman of the board

Online education represents a learning domain unlike any other technology-based academic delivery system. It incorporates the group qualities of interactive classroom-based learning while providing individual students the flexibility to participate in an undergraduate or graduate degree program at their own time and place. Personal computers and modems are the vehicles for communication. Computer conferencing software defines the “classroom.” This article addresses significant issues inherent in group-based, computer-mediated teaching, and some of the solutions developed by the Online Division of the University of Phoenix to address them.

University of Phoenix Online

Begun in September, 1989 with 14 students, the University of Phoenix Online (UOP) program now encompasses 85 faculty teaching 702 students in four business degree programs: an undergraduate Bachelor’s of Science (upper division only), a Master’s of Business Administration, a Master’s of Management and an undergraduate Bachelor’s of Arts in Management. Nine members of the original group of online students completed degree requirements and, along with 43 other online students, graduated at a formal ceremony in August 1991 at the Stouffer Stanford Court Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco. For the first time, these students laid eyes on their advisors, faculty and other UOP Online staff. Unlike other online programs – such as those at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Purdue University – the UOP program is conducted completely online. Advising, registration, textbook ordering and instruction are all conducted electronically. The only exception is occasional telephone contact among students, faculty and staff.

These 43 online graduates join some 30,000 students who have graduated from the University of Phoenix since its founding in 1976. UOP is a private, accredited institution dedicated to meeting the needs of working adults. It offers business, education, counseling, nursing and computer science degree programs and certificates at 13 campuses and learning centers located in six western states and Puerto Rico. The use of online technology is an exciting, important development in the delivery of educational services to working adults – a segment of the student population now approximating 50% of all college and university students. Online education, however, is not without its challenges and obstacles. Research findings and the experience gained by pioneering institutions, such as the University of Phoenix, are just now coalescing into answers to important online education issues. Our discussion of issues and answers will be organized around the attributes that Linda Harasim, a researcher in online education, defined to characterize online education’s unique learning mode: 1) computer-mediated interaction; 2) many-to-many communication; 3) place and time independence; and 4) reliance on text-based communication.[1]

Computer-Mediated Interaction

The use of computers within the context of “distance education” is the overriding issue from which all other issues problems and opportunities arise within online education. UOP’s Online educational delivery system is supported by computer conferencing software developed by Dynamic Microprocessors Associates of New York, N.Y. The university adapted this software for educational use and named it “Alex” for the Apollo Learning Exchange (Apollo is the name of UOP’s parent organization). Menu screens and program application protocols were developed in order to emulate an electronic university – one where a student can get answers to administrative questions; talk to a counselor; download a university newsletter; participate in “coffee house” discussions; go to the library; or attend class.

Students, faculty, and staff can access Alex via most standard Macintosh or DOS communications programs. All communications are sent in ASCII format, which also allows students, faculty and staff to employ a variety of word processors as they develop messages and files on their personal systems for uploading to Alex. While such software flexibility provides easy access for students, it also created the challenge of trouble-shooting many different types of software problems on Mac and IBM-compatible systems. UOP Online responded to this challenge by developing a standardized orientation program (delivered online) designed to acclimate new students to online education and to the technical requirements of the conferencing software. This one-week program requires approximately eight hours of involvement prior to entering any online degree program. Participants learn to prepare ASCII text files formatted for uploading to Alex, and practice sending and .

Deepa Singh
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