March 9, 2001

Faculty Debates eCornell Issues

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Since the Faculty Senate passed a resolution approving eCornell in March 2000, those involved have not stopped considering the merits and problems of distance learning. Faculty and staff brought their views to Kennedy Hall yesterday at a faculty forum titled “Beyond eCornell: Technology in the Classroom, Distance Education and New Pedagogy.”

Prof. Charles Wolcott, neurobiology and behavior, who moderated the forum, explained that discussion was organized “to try and see what it might make sense to do next.”

“This being an information revolution, we ought to be at the forefront of it,” said Prof. John Fitzpatrick, director of the Laboratory of Ornithology, who gave a powerpoint presentation at the beginning of the forum.

“Fundamentally, this is your chance to talk,” he told faculty.

The Board of Trustees allocated $12 million to eCornell last September so that it could establish as a for-profit entity. According to Chief Executive Officer Francis Pandolfi, eCornell could begin to offer non-credit courses as early as this June.

J. Robert Cooke, dean of the University Faculty, decided to hold the forum because of a series of pieces written by various faculty members on distance learning, including his own piece, “Beyond eCornell: Distributed Learning Possibilities and Opportunities.”

“eCornell exists, it’s under way, but there are many other aspects of distributive learning [to discuss],” Cooke said at the forum.

Cooke and other members of the faculty discourage the term “distance learning,” replacing it with “distributive learning.” Their reasoning is that those who take courses via the Internet or other Cornell satellites are not necessarily away from the Cornell campus.

Many members from the faculty voiced their ideas on distributive learning. The focus began with some faculty members’ fears over how distributive learning could change the meaning of an on-campus Cornell education.

“Do you think that there would be two classes of degree?” asked Barry Carpenter, chemistry, wondering if people taking for-credit classes via Internet would receive a different caliber of education from those who took classes on campus.

“I’d be surprised if I were still a member of the faculty when we got around to the discussion of distance-learning degrees,” said Prof. Glenn Altschuler, American studies. Altschuler is dean of Cornell’s School of Continuing Education, which currently runs online courses.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily a decline in the quality [of a distributive learning course] to have to be concerned about whether or not this is going to impinge on an undergraduate education,” Altschuler added.

Other faculty members raised concerns about the quality of a distributive learning course, versus that of a University course taught on campus.

“I have concerns about how courses grow,” said Prof. Naomi Altman, biometrics.

“I may teach out of a textbook that’s ten years old … [but] I can interact with this wonderful group of students,” Altman said.

This interaction, said Altman, helped her courses to evolve every time she taught them.

Altschuler countered that in distributive learning courses he has taught in the past, he has had more contact with students, via e-mail, than contact with students whom he teaches on campus.

“Contact was daily” with students in his distance learning classes, he said.

“It’s not obvious to me that the electronic meeting of minds is necessarily less effective” than face-to-face contact, said Prof. Paul Hyams, history.

Wolcott and Cooke broke in to the audience’s discussion to encourage a voicing of new ideas about how to use the Web to distribute their information, rather than focusing the debate on worries about possible repercussions of distance learning.

“People will have some flexibility [to] move between these modes” of taking classes on campus and taking them through distributive learning, Altman said.

“If you have the resources, then maybe you don’t need to be here all the time,” she said.

Other suggestions for the use of the Web in distributive learning included allowing users to have access to information in “small kernels,” with users possibly paying for each “kernel” of information they access.

“[Distributive learning] doesn’t have to only be courses,” said Prof. Sharon Kay Obendorf, textiles and apparel, who offered up the idea.

Other members of the faculty suggested that students already matriculating at Cornell could take distance learning classes while studying abroad, and that students from other universities might take one or two Cornell courses on the web.

Some faculty also juxtaposed the University’s elite status, charging $600 per credit for some distributive learning classes, with its responsibility as a land grant institution to offer some services for free.

“Whether they had gone to Cornell or not, whether they had gone to college or not … I could see people who might want to read about Shakespeare,” who should have access to information from professors on the Web, said a faculty member of the College of Veterinary Medicine.

After the forum, Cooke speculated on the next phase for distance learning.

“I think we desperately need to get some funding, to stimulate [development in distributive learning],” Cooke said.

Almost everyone who spoke agreed that the advantages and complications of distance learning have just begun to present themselves.

“It’s hard to know what impact this will have on what we do at Cornell,” Altschuler said.

Archived article by Maggie Frank