Net Gain

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With fits and starts, our intrepid reporter learns what it’s like to learn online

Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 15, 2000; Page W18

It is my second day as an online university student. The textbook has arrived, a 278-page paperback. It does not tell me how to start the course. So I call my enrollment adviser, Jennifer, who tells me, very politely, that I must log on to the course myself.

I go to the Web site but see no obvious way to do this. I call Jennifer again. With admirable restraint she tells me to click on the “Capella Campus” bar, then on the “Enter Online Courses” box. This works, to a point. The “Enter Online Courses” page rejects my user name and password. It tells me it has done this because I am using lowercase letters. I try again. This time it lets me in, saying, somewhat redundantly, “Welcome Thomas J. Mathews!”

Then its mood darkens and it says, “We do not have you registered for any Summer Quarter courses.” Uh oh. Back to Jennifer. As an education reporter for The Washington Post I have always wanted to learn how teachers stay in control of their classrooms without going nuts. I had heard there were courses that explained these techniques. So at the suggestion of one of my editors I decided to enroll in an online course, both to educate myself and to see what it was like to learn on the Net.

Thousands of people like me, as well as frustrated job-seekers, career-changers and the just plain curious, have been logging on to virtual universities for the last few years, making online classes the hottest thing in education. The question is: Do they work? Can you really learn in the same way that you might sitting in a lecture hall, with a flesh-and-blood teacher conducting the class, and flesh-and-blood classmates around you? As the summer semester rolled around I found myself on the telephone and on the Web trying to find the right course for me.

JULY 7—My first choice had been the University of Phoenix, the world’s largest online campus with some 16,000 students. But after much consultation by telephone I was unable to find an education course that worked for me and was available to non-teachers. So today I call another school, Capella University in Minneapolis, and reach Jennifer, a patient and cheerful enrollment adviser. Capella is much smaller than Phoenix, with only about 1,800 students, but like many online establishments ithas been growing rapidly. Jennifer suggests I enroll in ED 6520, Classroom Management Skills, for $350 plus the cost of books. The course starts July 10. It lasts six weeks.

I go to the Web site,, and follow the registration instructions. It is relatively quick and easy, although at one point I get trapped in an online blind alley and have to start again. I use my credit card. A very detailed message arrives that same day from the university automatic e-mail system giving me my user name, TM3761, and password, and telling me I must have a personal computer with 233 MHz, 64 MB RAM, 200 MB available hard disk space, CD-ROM drive, 28,800-baud modem or better, sound card and speakers, video card capable of 800-by-600-pixel resolution, with Windows 95, 98, 2000 or NT, Acrobat Reader software with Acrobat PDF companion, etc. etc. I have no idea if I have any of that (I am pretty sure Windows is in there somewhere).

I do manage to order the textbook, ENVoY: A Personal Guide to Classroom Management by Michael Grinder. Despite my technical limitations and somewhat sour memories of college, I am excited.

JULY 10— My first day as an online university student. I am not sure what to do. I go to the university Web page, but I find no clues. At the office, I am considered an elderly technophobe. Someone has to lead me by the hand when computer issues arise. Such coddling has made me too docile (okay, too stupid) to ask someone how to start the online course. I wait for a bell to ring, or something. I know this is old thinking so I pray for an e-mail that will tell me which icon to click.

JULY 11— And so on day two I call Jennifer. After the Web site tells me that I am not registered for any summer courses, she transfers me to the equally well-mannered Erik. He listens to my tale and puts me on hold. Erik comes back to say it might be a credit card problem. He puts me on hold again, then returns to take down my credit card number. He promises to put it through himself. He tells me to try to get into the course again in two hours. I try several times, but no luck.

JULY 12— I try again. I am in! I inspect the home page for course ED 6520. It says, “Good Morning, TM3761.” The circuits get to know me better and soon say, “Good Morning, Thomas” and then reach a comfort zone and switch to my preferred “Good Morning, Jay.” I click on an orientation bar and read about procedures. I learn I can click on a calendar icon labeled “Schedule” for a course outline, or an ID card icon labeled “Profiles” for information on the instructor and the other students, or an icon of students seated at a table labeled “CourseRoom” for assignments and comments, or a book-and-CD icon labeled “MediaCenter” for reference works.

I find no course assignments or other documents have been posted yet. That means that even though I am three days late, I have somehow gotten to class before the professor. I manage to post information about myself in the Profiles section. There are five other students in the class. Only three of them have posted information, so I am not so far behind. In the afternoon I receive an e-mail from Beverly, Capella’s director of instructional design and distance education. She says the instructor, Cheryl, is “just returning from out of town.” This seems an odd way to put it, since Cheryl, a specialist in educational technology, works in Philadelphia and lives in Cheltenham, Pa., a long way from both Capella in Minneapolis and my cubicle in Alexandria.

JULY 13—I receive an e-mail from Capella’s “Learner Services” welcoming me to “our networked academic community.” It tells me I have an academic adviser, Tom, and how to reach him. It suggests I take an online tutorial to help me navigate this new world. I should probably do it, but like many others squeezing distance learning into a busy life I decide I have no time.

JULY 14— I call up the profiles of my fellow students: a teacher trainer in Minnesota; an Air Force retiree who teaches business management in Oregon; a new middle school English teacher in New York City; a veteran second-grade teacher in Alabama; and a 22-year-old preschool teacher’s aide in Massachusetts.

JULY 15— The course textbook is easy to read but hard, at least for me, to imagine a teacher using. ENVoY stands for Educational Non-Verbal Yardsticks. It is a refinement of a management technique called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which is popular in business circles. Grinder, the author, emphasizes the importance of body movement, vocal tone, breathing rates and eye movement. He rejects the more common approach to classroom management — yelling at the little monsters until they quiet down. I learn the first two of Grinder’s seven main points —what he calls the Seven Gems.

One is “Freeze Body,” the technique of standing perfectly still in the front of the class when getting students’ attention. The other is “ABOVE (Pause) whisper,” beginning animportant instruction at a volume slightly above that of the classroom chatter, and then dropping to a barely audible tone once kids are listening. This being a course for teachers, the students are asked to experiment with each technique.

The Air Force retiree in Oregon, Don Richie, posts this comment: “I have made it a practice to utilize the `Freeze Body’ method when necessary . . . I use this method to gain control of the class as time is of the essence to deliver the necessary information that is required for the course.” Makes sense to me, and unlike many classroom sessions when I was in college, I am fully conscious and attentive when he shares his insight.

JULY 16—I find Cheryl’s assignments and register my comments without too much difficulty. To catch up on what is happening, I click on the CourseRoom icon and then click on the titles of new comments and assignments. I feel that I am starting to get the hang of this.

JULY 17— Cheryl has us click on an Indiana University Web site exercise: “What is your classroom management profile?” I mark how much I agree or disagree with a series of statements, such as “I don’t want to impose any rules on my students” (strongly disagree); or “I am concerned about both what my students learn and how they learn” (agree). The results show that I, and most of the rest of the class, have an authoritative style, the only one of the four styles the exercise authors seem to approve of. This provokes my first official classroom comment: “Are there not some aspects of other styles that have worth in certain circumstances?” I write. “I hope all tests in this course are like this one, because the right answers seem pretty clear, perhaps too clear.” No one congratulates me for the depth of my insight or even my dry wit, yet I feel like I have contributed something. I learn later that “What is your classroom management profile?” will be the only thing in the course that ever comes close to being a test.

JULY 18—Tom, my academic adviser, sends two long e-mail messages he admits are “a bit dated,” but in the online world getting everyone on the same schedule doesn’t matter so much. “The discussion rooms are asynchronous,” he says. “You do not need to worry about being online at any set time. However, I do suggest you treat the discussion forums as regular `class time’ that needs to occur consistently every week.” He has a special message for novices like me: “As with any new endeavor, you will likely face some challenges. There can be a tendency to feel anxious and excited when enrolling in a graduate-level course. At times you may also feel alone in cyberspace.”

JULY 20—He has a point. I am keeping up with the comments and the reading, but I wonder if that is enough. I feel like I am reading a book, but I don’t feel like I am taking a course. There is a sense of being somewhat removed from what is going on, as if I were peeking into a lecture hall through a keyhole. It is also apparent that most of the other students, real teachers who have actually managed classes, are smarter than I am and contribute more to the course than I do. Fortunately, the grading system discourages competitive jealousies. “With the exception of the School of Psychology,” Tom writes, “all courses at Capella are graded Satisfactory (S), Incomplete (I) or No Credit (NC).” If your company won’t reimburse your tuition until they see a real grade, he writes, Capella will give you one.

JULY 30—I log on to find that the Alabama second-grade teacher, Sandi Mowrey, has dropped a cyberspace bombshell into our course. It seems she has been doing some Internet research into the subject of Neuro-Linguistic Programming and found some things that trouble her. “I am thoroughly delighted with the concepts of Michael Grinder in our text and was gung-ho to proceed with Neuro-Linguistic Programming UNTIL I began to find some very disturbing statements in my Internet search.” Much of the language she found associated with NLP seemed to her “just like the promises of many cultists!” There was talk of “alienating your innermost being” from a “deep miserable abyss.” Sleep deprivation was recommended in some circumstances, she writes. “I want to be a teacher and use sound, reasonable means of reaching my students . . .” she writes. “I am not interested in promoting some mind-altering hypnotic state, giving some unknown person an opportunity to fulfill his own sinister agenda.”

If this were a traditional classroom, her comments would have excited a flurry of reactions, maybe even some loud arguments. Online there is . . . nothing. Days pass before some of us even read what she has written. The printed word obscures and softens tone and volume. No one launches a rebuttal. Cheryl appears to ignore fears of automatons taking over the second grade and returns us to the course outline. Have we been using the ENVoY techniques? What do we think of Grinder aphorisms such as, “The influence of power is short-lived while the power of influence is endless”?

AUG. 2— My adviser, Tom, e-mails me. “Dear Karen, I hope that you are enjoying your online course and are in the midst of a relevant and valuable learning experience. . . . Sometime soon you will want to look ahead to your final project.” Am I a Karen now? An hour later he e-mails an apology for using the wrong name. “To err is human, but to really screw things up you need a computer,” he writes. I am not upset. I can recall professors who never even bothered to try to know my name. Meanwhile, I reread the Karen message and panic at the mention of a project. What project? I e-mail Cheryl.

AUG. 8 —Her response is very helpful, even if it is written as if I were about 6 years old: “Dear Jay, At the Web site click on SCHEDULE . . . once in that area select START HERE . . . If you scroll down you will see REQUIREMENTs.”

AUG.9— My project proposal: I will interview Grinder and write a paper attempting to put him and his critics in context, feeding off my Alabama classmate’s concerns about mind control. Cheryl says, “Your project sounds like an excellent idea. I would be fascinated to hear what both sides have to say.” I feel good until I read her next sentence: “Many of the papers usually run about 20+ pages in length with title and bibliography.” I begin a precise calculation, printing out a sample page, of how little I can get away with and still fill 20 pages. I remember doing this in high school, and yet I feel no shame.

AUG 10—I ask Cheryl what my deadline is. Uncharacteristically, she does not respond right away. Was this one dumb question too many?

AUG 16—E-mail from Cheryl: “Sorry it has taken me sooo long to respond, but this has been an extremely busy time for me. My daughter was married July 8th in the Bahamas and we had a reception at my home this weekend. I am just getting back into the swing of things. The course officially ends August 21st and I would hope all projects would be completed by that time, but no later than August 28th. Good luck and keep me posted.” She is fitting her teaching into the available moments of her life, just as I am fitting my learning into mine.

I am becoming more comfortable with that sense of detachment. And I think I am learning something, and at a pace I can handle. That means, as it does for many mid-career people, that I steal time from work, where my IBM PC provides much easier, quick and clear access to Capella U than my home computer does. I am averaging two hours a week online for this small, two-credit course, and maybe another hour reading the book at home. But that is before I start the class project, which will take several hours.

AUG. 19—I call Grinder. We talk for an hour. I conclude he is not a sly brainwasher but a very thoughtful and warmhearted man, the kind who says on his Web site that his twofold mission in life is to “be in love with Gail” (his wife) and to “balance my life with relationship and work.” At the end of the interview I ask for his e-mail address. He doesn’t have one. He says he doesn’t like computers.

AUG. 30—My project is now more than a week overdue. If my calculations are correct, I still have 10 pages to go. I resort to padding: “There is a New Age, California guru, trendy self-actualization flavor to much of what Grinder (pronounced GRIN-der) teaches,” I write. I think the pronunciation guide is a nice touch. Nine pages to go.

SEPT. 1—I turn in my paper. This is a moment when the Internet shines, adding to my happiness and relief. Copy it, paste it on an e-mail message to Cheryl, click on Send. Presto! My paper is titled “The Silent Approach: Non-Verbal Communication and the American Classroom.” It is a ragged grab bag of half-baked ideas and overlong quotes, but I actually know things now about how classrooms work that I did not know before.

SEPT. 7—No grade yet. How inconsiderate to make me wait. So what if the paper was a little late?

SEPT. 15—E-mail from Cheryl. I passed. (No mention of what she thought of the paper.) I am now the proud recipient of three credits toward a master’s degree in education.

So what have I learned about learning online? It seems best for adults who can, more or less, stick to a schedule, write grammatical English and don’t expect too much, particularly from a simple course like ED 6520. But it strikes me that the most difficult and important learning — how to write well, how to conduct scientific experiments, how to design a new car — has to be done in the same room with the people who are doing the teaching. Online learning is to real learning as video games are to war.

You acquire useful skills and knowledge, but without any blood or sweat you have not done everything you need to do. I learned techniques for keeping order in a class but I would be lost without trying them several times with living, squirming 8-year-olds and a veteran teacher giving me signals from the back of the room. Still, the experience was good for me because I was in search of specific information. It was not the intellectual experience you might get in a standard university or graduate school. But it was designed to be a how-to course, and in many ways that seems to be what online learning — filling gaps in our education — is all about right now.

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