VIRGINIA TECH'S CYBERSCHOOL/ACCESS PROJECTS:
A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
A Discussion Paper
(Special thanks to Drs. John Moore, Tom Head, and David Taylor for the advice
and ideas they contributed for the presentation section of this paper. Thanks
should also go to Drs. Mary Beth Oliver, Tim Luke, Len Hatfield, the Cyberschool
and ACCESS teams, and the Sloan Foundation recipients whose lively discussions
have helped shape some of these arguments. As always I am indebted to Michael
Leahy and Sharon Pitt for their technical expertise, and to Dean Robert
Bates and his staff for their advice and encouragement.)
Built around the EDUCOM '95
In response to the numerous requests I have had from those I have met around
the country who are also involved in curricular reform, and faculty who
have been asking about the course I taught last summer, I have decided to
"publish" this discussion paper on-line. It is neither comprehensive
nor the final word on any of these issues; but I do hope it is useful. If
you wish to quote from the paper, I would be grateful if you could cite
the source. Feel free to share what is here with colleagues, if you think
it is useful, and excuse me in advance if I am unable to answer personal
queries. I am rationing my e-mail time in order to preserve my sanity!
The structure is institutionalized and given permanence by
the educational system. Agreement on the structure is efficient: it saves
investigators from having to go back to first principles each time. The
theory of the structure dictates what "facts" shall be, and all
values and assessments of results are internal to the structure. Since theory
"creates" facts, and facts prove the theory, the argument of science
is circular. Commitment to the theory is essential to orderly progress.
The unknown can only be examined by first being defined in terms of the
James Burke in The Day the Universe Changed
I. Information Technology and the Delivery Response
(For those interested in the theories behind learning. Those interested
only in practical application, move to section II.)
In his book The Day the Universe Changed, James Burke, through a
series of ingenious arguments, comes to the now-familiar conclusion that,
apart from our perception of things, little changed at all. The same scientific
"evidence" about the way the world works had always been there;
but we were so busy fitting it into comfortable frameworks of reference
that we fooled ourselves into believing the cosmos had fundamentally shifted.
In spite of information technology, we may be guilty of some of the same
assumptions as the scientists Burke cites. We inhabit educational infrastructures
whose very existence is premised upon two important notions: guardianship
and ownership. We guard the curricula, the canon, the data, the lecture
notes. We grant access to others only sparingly. People need all kinds of
qualifications to enter the edifices of education. It is our way of ensuring
two things: quality and purity. We claim ownership over ideas, aligning
our claims to our certification and our status. It's been acknowledged for
many years that the system was not designed to be student-centered or collaborative.
The sudden ascendance of a so-called flat architecture--of an information
system without toll roads or green cards has the potential to change the
nostalgic structures Western society has worshipped for centuries. But we
are still dogged by a major problem, one we haven't even begun to sort out:
we have only a rudimentary notion of what constitutes student learning.
As Stephen Erhmann points out in his EDUCOM article New
Technology, Old Trap, we've been involved in broadcast teaching
approaches for too long. Believing that the saying of the word results in
the absorption of the concept, we have sent legions of students through
learning experiences that provide them with none of the tools for survival
they will need. Hoping that we can adapt the new technologies to existing
teaching practices, we have grafted them wholesale onto the old system and
then waited for them to work. But student-centered education is a revolutionary
practice, a practice founded upon an equation that is often forgotten in
the current debate.
The model I've invented to describe this phenomenon looks something like
Learning is equal to a combination of delivery and response where
response is always far greater than delivery.
It's a very simple approach to solving what I call the Delivery/ Response
Conundrum. All it means is that we devote far too much time and energy as
educators in fine-tuning delivery mechanisms, and far too little time focused
on student response. The new information technology gives us the potential
to explore the response dynamic in ways we never have before; it gives us
a way to listen to what our students are saying and educate them according
to the responses they give us.
This is all well and good; but, if the structure of learning has been institutionalized,
and if the unknown can only, as Burke suggests, be defined in terms of an
existing and limited structure, how can we hope to begin reinventing ourselves
from within these structures? In other words, is there anything worth saving?
What do we know for certain about the way students learn in our classes?
Why is it that some students do learn well in lecture classes, why others
thrive in self-paced approaches, why some benefit most from collaborative
learning models, and why others don't seem to be able (or willing) to learn
much of anything. Isn't the first question we should be asking as we develop
these new teaching/learning paradigms How do students learn? And isn't the
second, What is it we want to teach them? I'm often faintly dismayed by
certain kinds of business/corporate views on education, views that limit
education to the learning of particular job skills. Why on earth should
the business and corporate world assume that their matrices will remain
stable? Aren't all of the rules we've lived by--the rules of the marketplace
as well as the rules that have governed education--up for grabs? If we are
in the midst of what amounts to the democratization of education, are we
also in the midst of the democratization of the marketplace? And last but
not least, once we find out in this new arena what it is students need to
learn, will we be able to teach it to them?
II. A Shift in Focus: The Cyberschool/ACCESS Experiment
(This section is for those interested in the practical application of different
kinds of learning approaches. If you've heard the EDUCOM presentation, you
may want to move to section III.)
All of those questions are fine, but they do little to help an administrator
who is trying to take a proactive approach to the situation, who has almost
no money for innovations, and whose appreciation of information technology
may be somewhat limited.
This part of the discussion paper is designed for him/her. It's a brief
overview of the cyberschool and ACCESS experiments, and a kind of summation
of the EDUCOM presentation that I will be giving with John Moore and Tom
Head on November 1, 1995.
The cyberschool experiment at Virginia Tech is only a small part of the
curricular restructuring taking place here and at other institutions. It
does provide, however, a concrete example of what can be done with relatively
few resources, a large measure of enthusiasm, and a dedication to the furtherance
of student-centered education.
To be fair, I should admit to my own background and biases so that the perspective
I bring to this will be clear from the beginning. As an Anglo-Jamaican poet
and professor of English and Black Studies, I was perhaps less than ideally
suited to the information technology arena. I was fated, however, to be
a participant in the Faculty Development Institute (FDI) a few years ago
(information about the institute can be obtained at http://www.edtech.vt.edu/IDI.html),
and my fate was compounded by the enormous potential I saw for change if
these new systems were utilized. As an associate dean charged with curriculum,
outreach and diversity in the College
of Arts & Sciences, my point of view is that of an administrator
(recently appointed) and a faculty member (of many years). It's also a minority
point of view. I was tired of the pairing of exclusion with technology.
When I was promoted from assistant to associate dean, it was my task to
look at curricular reform in a college of thirty departments and programs.
I also felt it was a matter of personal obligation to find a way for other
people of color and disadvantaged people to access this new treasury of
Cyberschool was a term coined by Dr. Tim Luke
in Political Science when he was a member of one of the Arts & Sciences'
task forces assigned to look at curricular reform. Since then, cyberschool
has had a child, ACCESS (Asynchronous Communications Courses to Enable Student
Success), funded by the Sloan Foundation.
But the symbiotic connection between the two projects means that they both
share some essential characteristics. Both are intensely practical and doable,
and both place students in the center of the reform model. But before going
on to describe them, it's important to look at what the catalysts were for
In the College of Arts & Sciences at Virginia Tech, we were faced with
some all-too-familiar challenges:
In spite of all these problems, we had some remarkable advantages, not least
of which was FDI. I myself as a graduate of the one-week workshop had begun
to see how we could apply the technology. Working with John Moore, Tom Head,
Tim Luke, Len Hatfield, Mary Beth Oliver and others, it became more obvious
that at least some of the solutions could be found if we could reinvent
our approach to teaching. Could technology be used to help us address the
challenges? If so, how? As Carol Twigg and others have pointed out, selective,
individual changes do little to revolutionize the system itself, especially
in a climate controlled by notions of guardianship and ownership. Administratively
we needed to create an engine that could act as the change agent. Cyberschool
and ACCESS, to some extent, have become that engine.
- Low Faculty Morale; Few Rewards
- After a series of devastating budget cuts (called fiscal opportunities
by administrators), and little real increase in salaries, morale among faculty
was low. Faculty were not always rewarded for teaching well. There was also
a curricular revolution waiting in the wings. Technology was going to change
everything. But if I happened to be a full professor who had about as great
a passion for computers as I did for root canals, who had taught using traditional
methods for years, and who was just plain tired, the information age loomed
in the background like the essence of despair. We rarely spoke across the
disciplines. We taught largely in isolation, fueled by a steady, somewhat
- Influx of Students; Large Classes
- Virginia Tech was seeing an influx of students into Arts & Sciences.
In biology, we had reached saturation point. Our buildings were full; we
needed a solution--fast.
- Student/Parent Disenchantment
- A series of articles in the local paper blasted the university. Faculty
were portrayed as overpaid, under-worked, welfare recipients. Parents sometimes
complained about service, particularly now that tuition rates had increased
substantially. Quite understandably, they wanted value for their dollar.
People were talking about cost containment on bad days and value-added teaching
on good ones. (For an administrator value means the value the faculty member
places on him/herself and is not--I repeat not--a promise of financial
- Scheduling Problems/Credit for Contact "Law"
- The credit for contact paradigm had us in a stranglehold. 3 hours contact=3
hours credit. It had been that way for decades. It was, by God, as American
- Cutbacks in Funding
- Almost everyone in public higher education (apart from some of my colleagues
at the University of Virginia) was broke.
In the learning model we devised for the experiments, students are in the
center. If the engine is the structure of Cyberschool and ACCESS, the students
are the fuel, the car, and all the roads. Sometimes, faculty drive; sometimes
staff take the wheel, and sometimes students are in the driver's seat; but
there is an extraordinary effort on the part of faculty like Art Buikema
and Bill Claus to remain student focused. Approaches like electronic conferencing,
the creation of study cells in biology, the use of Daedalus as an interactive
writing tool across the disciplines and asynchronous access to course material
would allow students the freedom to pace themselves and interact with each
other with or without the mediation of a faculty member or graduate assistant.
Most importantly of all, we are trying to devise models that allow for collaborative
learning to take place. If we limit the technology so that it does less
than bring us into collaborative learning communities, we are selling it
Another approach we took was to forget about rank. Partnerships in Cyberschool
and ACCESS were formed without regard to who was "senior," who
was endowed with faculty status. One of the main hang-ups we have to dispense
with in higher education is our absurd regard for the importance of rank.
In some arenas, it has resulted in a dismissal of information technology
as an agent of change simply because the messenger, the information technology
advocate, was a staff person rather than a member of the faculty. We will
shoot ourselves in the foot if we don't grow up.
We were banking on the fact that if the partnerships that began to form
during Cyberschool meetings worked, they would begin to replicate on their
own--they would be self-generating. The ACCESS proposal to the Sloan
Foundation (funded recently for $200K) was one of the results. I was
hoping that the administration could be a catalyst and facilitator. We needed
to connect faculty to resources--often external, and we needed to show institutional
commitment to the projects to ensure faculty buy-in. We hoped that the benefits
to all this would include a speedy completion of courses; fewer whole-class
contact hours; and more schedule flexibility. For my part, I was hoping
that we would also see an upswing in faculty morale as they reinvented their
classes and saw students being thrilled by the kind of feedback these systems
The design was simple:
Get faculty together with a team of technical experts. Talk across the disciplines--biologists
with communications professors; geologists with art historians. No one should
enter the dialogue with any preconceptions. Faculty and staff would be encouraged
to share best practices, then disseminate these through their departments.
We realized we could not meet often in our interdisciplinary teams; people
were too busy. So we took a self-paced approach, splitting off into smaller
groups. The downside of that was that there are still members of the
Cyberschool Team (which currently numbers around 30) who have had relatively
little whole-group interaction. The upside is that we have managed to get
some projects off the ground.
We decided to begin by creating some pilot models using fairly inexpensive
methods such as electronic conferencing, customized home pages, commercial
software--and then disseminate the results to the Cyberschool Team. It should
be emphasized that we were not working in a vacuum--that the wheel had already
been invented by many diligent faculty members who are working individually
on course redesign. The difference here is the collaborative approach and
the support structure put in place by Arts & Sciences and Information
Systems. We'd experiment with two or three classes during the summer of
1995. The rest would come during the following year. We'd invited others
to join us as we went along, eventually having representatives from the
thirty departments and programs in the college, as well as representatives
from other colleges in the university.
All the while, we decided to continue to seek external support. All of us
were realistic about the budgetary situation. We knew that it would be almost
impossible to obtain all the necessary funding through reallocation of resources.
We had to look outside the walls of the institution and form partnerships
with others interested in how information technology could be used to help
We had a huge advantage at Virginia Tech because of the Instructional Development
Initiative designed by Information Systems/
Educational Technologies. Over
700 faculty have now graduated from the one-week intensive workshops; all
of them have been given computers, software, hook-ups, and basic training.
We also began to realize the other advantage we had anticipated: once faculty
begin to experiment with information technology, as long as they get
enough technical support, they begin to fall in love with teaching again.
The level of their enthusiasm is often directly proportional to the amount
of support they receive. At this juncture I am worried that administrators
will not take this into account as they devise new models of learning. If
they don't, our experiment with the technology will fail. As faculty realize
they don't have to abandon all of the traditional methodologies, they are
more eager to embrace new methods they may not have tried before. When they
see that these techniques offer a way to individualize the learning process,
and that, in a team, sanity can be maintained, many more things become do-able.
For administrators, the scheduling problem begins to open up. Windows appear
in the curriculum. You can open them.
A selection of cyberschool/ACCESS courses are being offered in the coming
year. These courses change monthly as faculty pace themselves, letting us
know when they think they're ready to offer them. From an administrative
point of view, some of the kinds of support Arts & Sciences and Information
Systems has been able to give include:
This kind of reallocation of funds can only come if a college is willing
to take restructuring seriously. We are still a long way from Robert Heterick,
Jr.'s vision of disaggregation, and a long way from the kind of massive
administrative overhaul higher education will need to go through to become
competitive in the new economy.
- several hundred hours of instructional design time to a staff person
in art history
- faculty release time on a limited basis
- extra travel money
- grant writing and liaison support
Having been through the process so far, however, I'd like to suggest a list
of administrative do's and don'ts for those thinking of adopting a similar
DON'T choose faculty/administrators who view education solely in
terms of guardianship and ownership:
The faculty who are most likely to succeed in these kinds of ventures are
those who are open to change, those who feel that education is not only,
to paraphrase Professor Eli Noam's words, the preserver of information,
that its function is also (to freely paraphrase his words again) that of
creator and transmitter of new kinds of knowledge.
DON'T attempt to do everything at once. Providing enough support
for a few is better than too little support for the many.
DON'T always select the Mad Mouseketeers as your key team members:
you know, the ones whose index fingers remained glued to virtual mouses
(mice?) even when they are miles away from their computer screens. Try to
select novices. They are often more effective on the team for a number of
reasons: 1) they are regarded less suspiciously by their colleagues as they
rarely talk about platforms or interfaces, and never wail that their hard
disks are too small, and 2) they bring a refreshing sense of skepticism
to the process and can sometimes envision applications that others, more
familiar with the techno-scene, would find difficult to see.
DO choose the best, most dedicated teachers you have, and try to
involve their department chairs, if you can.
DO try to find external support and use administrative "clout"
(if you're lucky enough to have any left) to form collaborations.
DO link your assessment to your planning efforts with sophisticated
(David Taylor will be conducting assessment for ACCESS. He is utilizing
techniques successfully used by Dr. George Glasson of Virginia Tech and
others. For more information about the links between assessment and planning,
check back with the Cyberschool or ACCESS home pages next semester.)
DO encourage a sense of humor on the part of everyone involved; you'll
Lastly, don't be discouraged when things don't work. Often, they won't.
This is a huge experiment as teaching has always been when we've allowed
it room to breathe. There is a vital distinction to be made between what
Stephen Ehrmann calls "broadcast teaching" and learning. We're
only just beginning to explore it.
III. Examples of Pilot Projects
Why do faculty get so excited when they reinvent
their classes? Because when you use technology with care, students get
excited. We made a videotape record of the reaction of some of our students
in the early pilot courses. As part of our "authentic assessment,"
these reactions will enable us to involve students in the reshaping of our
During the summer of 1995, Mary Beth Oliver taught the communications course
on-line, and has scaled up to a class of 70 this semester. (Mary Beth has
her own home page that can be accessed through a link on the cyberschool
page.) I taught a hybrid on-line/computer-enhanced course on the civil
rights movement and literature in four weeks rather than the usual summer
length of six weeks; and Art Buikema taught a computer-enhanced honors biology
course. I taught as a money-saving option: i.e. I was free. We were able
to obtain internal funding support from Arts & Sciences for Dr. Oliver
(whose support will now come from Sloan), and as Dr. Buikema taught the
course as part of the normal offerings in biology, no special funding was
required. (Dr. Art Buikema is one of the Principal Investigators on the
ACCESS project. He and his colleagues, Drs. Bill Claus and John Neal, are
attempting to come up with some truly innovative approaches to the teaching
of biology. If you check this page again next semester, ACCESS biology faculty
material will also be incorporated.)
I had wanted to teach a black studies course using the new technology ever
since I saw a videoclip of Martin Luther King on a Persuasion presentation
in the week-long Faculty Development Institute. It occurred to me that the
technology could help African American students in particular--that they
would have editorial power over history, over the video and audio, the texts;
that they would not have to be victims of the legacy; they could be its
Something else excited me about the link between this part of history and
the use of technology. As a child, I had sat in many classes and been appalled
by racism. I had been forced to speak when the teacher wanted me to do so.
I had been a lone voice of color in a class of white students. I knew how
precious silence could be; how important it was to have time to collect
your thoughts before the emotion overcame you. Couldn't the technology provide
those necessary pauses--those places where students could dwell on what
they had seen and heard in the privacy of their own computer screens? They
could then speak when they were ready to speak. And, if we chose the right
medium, they could share thoughts with each other in all kinds of ways.
At Virginia Tech, summer sessions are usually six weeks long. Classes meet
daily. I decided to meet daily with my class during the first 10 days; after
that, about one day in four. I felt it was important that they know their
professor was a woman of color. I wanted to know their faces and expressions
so that I could better read their words. Michael Leahy made a Home Page
to my specifications in record time. He built links to the video clips,
audio clips, short excerpts from texts, etc., that I'd selected. We used
Daedalus to allow students the freedom to write and conference with each
other. The cost was minimal because we didn't try to come up with expensive
movie footage of our own. I used the videodisk Eyes on the Prize
during face-to-face class sessions, and we had some library video material
licensed to the university that we were free to link to the class home page.
Other links to sites around the country were provided by Len Hatfield, and
we hoped students would find their own. Then we waited to see what would
The students loved the courses. For Mary Beth and myself as we continue
to talk and begin to write about why the experience was so important to
us, it was a process of renewal. The number of interactions between faculty
and students can easily quadruple in classes where conversation is electronically
mediated. Some students contacted us several times a day. What struck me
was students' willingness to look at the course and offer feedback about
it, not just in terms of whether they "liked" it or not, but in
terms of what connections they could make now that they hadn't been able
to make before. Connections that were not discipline-bound or limited by
historical assumptions. An automatic record of what went on in the class
was kept because Daedalus, the integrated writing software program, allows
for storage of data by students' names, subject categories, etc. We also
had the WebChats on record, listserv files, and stored electronic versions
of multiple drafts of research papers.
Whenever I become distressed by the relatively slow rate of change at our
institutions of higher education, I think about the students Mary Beth and
I had in our classes this summer, and how they easily they embraced the
positive aspects of the technology and discarded the rest; how willing they
were to try new approaches, even when servers crashed or files disappeared;
how thrilled they were by the wonders of what they saw; and, most importantly
in the case of some of the minority students, how they claimed ownership
of the pieces of knowledge they gathered, synthesized them, and began to
see how connections can be fruitfully made over time. One of them showed
the football team how to access the Internet; another is now assisting David
Taylor in his assessment of ACCESS. It was not all sweetness and light.
It was extremely hard work, and it would not have been possible without
the support of people like Hyoejin Yoon, the graduate assistant in my class,
or Michael Leahy who provided such valuable technical support to Mary Beth
I have often heard people say that we need to teach students how to work
well in their chosen careers, give them useful skills they can apply in
the workplace. They are right. And those of us involved in liberal education
like to think we do that too. We also like to think that we are preparing
students as much for the jobs they will take as we are for what they will
do when their jobs evaporate, or their parents die, or the economy takes
an unheralded downswing, or their boss invites them to work abroad.
If professional education prepares students for a particular job, a liberal
education has a similar function, but it also prepares students for the
spaces in between. If some of the very notions we have founded our culture
upon: the five-day working week, the ratios of work to leisure, travel,
job security, retirement, etc. are in the process of undergoing extraordinary
change, we need to equip students with the survival skills they will need
in order to survive.
We can assume nothing. We want to have something of value to hold on to
when the universe changes on us. As educators, if we hear nothing because
we are too busy focused on sustaining a present that is no longer economically
or culturally viable, we will wrap our students in silence. The key has
always been their voices. The hard thing has been to remember to invite
them to speak, listen to what they are telling us, and then go from there.
We need to know what they do and don't know, before teaching them what we
think they should understand. If indeed as James Burke suggests, we can
only examine the unknown in terms of a known structure, then we must do
all we can to make the structure more flexible, even at the risk of jeopardizing
the existing structure altogether.
I firmly believe that higher education has a vital role to play in the education
of our children. Certain educational models allow us the freedom to work
together to find solutions. If Cyberschool, ACCESS and similar models prove
to have that kind of capability, then we should adapt them for other purposes.
One thing is clear: educators are going to be expected to be even more thoroughly
acquainted with their students in this new environment than they were in
the old. And we are going to have to try to find out the answers to the
question of how students learn before trying to overload them with information.
Access alone, even when students are fortunate enough to have it, will never
November 1, 1995
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of Arts & Sciences, or CyberSchool