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I took a fairly traditional route to a college degree — community college for two years, then on to the major state university — so I don’t have a lot of first-hand experience in the area of distance or online education. But in my work as a university communicator, I’ve written a lot about the distance and online programs we have at Missouri S&T. A few years ago, our staff published a magazine all about our online education program, and I had the good fortune to interview one of the pioneers of distance learning, Professor Ken Ragsdell, who teaches in our engineering management department. And through that interview, I learned a lot about the philosophy of education — not just online education, but all education.
Ken’s first shot at teaching students from a distance came in 1973, when the dean of engineering at Purdue, where Ken taught at the time, asked him to teach a course over live television. Thirty-six years later, he’s still teaching distance courses, both online and via satellite. What he’s learned over the years may look odd to many educators, but as he told me back in 2004, “Once you slip into this world of trying to look at education in a different way, innovation looks normal.”
And what is that different way?
The professor’s role switches now from expert/judge to coach. When I was younger, I saw myself as the major source of knowledge for my students. Now I have to be an educational manager and provide many paths to learning so students can easily navigate through a course — to put the students more in control of their educational experience and provide opportunities for all students to learn and realize their potential.
You’ve got to turn the educational process upside-down and put the student at the center. It’s a bit humbling, because as a professor you lose some control. But the reward for that is better student learning and much better retention.
What online learning also does, according to Ragsdell, is flip-flop higher learning’s traditional paradigm. Universities are organized around synchronicity. Classes and semesters begin and end at specific times. When time’s up, students are judged by what they’ve learned during that period.
What would happen, though, if universities ditched the obsession with sequential education in favor of a model more in step with online education?
- What if students could complete a course at an accelerated pace, taking the final exam long before semester’s end?
- What if students could elect to take only one or two hours of a three-hour course, what Ragsdell calls “micro-modules”?
- Or what if students could enroll in two courses offered at the same time? If all the material is available online and professors are accessible, there’s no reason why the paradigm could not shift.
Those are some of the what if’s Ragsdell ponders. Turning education upside-down seems to make sense.
What do you think?
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