Students, Professors Open to Virtual Classrooms
> 8/3/2007 11:52:05 AM

A revelation has occurred to educators around the country and the world: college students are increasingly familar with lives lived at least partially online, most enjoy personal attention in all forms, and they are very receptive to the use of technologies that allow for the digital expansion of their academic experience. One wonders why such a patently obvious deduction would be greeted as a breakthrough.

The "trend" goes far beyond Googling one's school of choice or searching for classmates on Facebook. More universities have begun applying the overwhelming popularity of social networking sites to their application processes, offering chat forums to interested high-schoolers and emailing online community registration information along with each acceptance/orientation package. Student and alumni blogs have also come into use as a form of advertising wherein applicants can browse personal, often unedited testimony from those who are living through the university experience.

Professors are also, to an increasing degree, distributing class and research materials online, thereby allowing for a more expansive information network that will (hopefully) create a student body both better prepared for academic discussion and able to formally converse with professors and fellow students outside the classroom. The development of collaborative research "wikis" tracing the contributions of each participant has also allowed for greater scrutiny of student work. Electronic essays and critical projects can be precisely monitored by professors aiming to grade more accurately, and various media companies offer software application packages specifically designed for teachers and administrators.

In the midst of competing social, professional and chemical influences, one can easily forget that the purpose of higher education is just that. And reminders of the many opportunities to publish and promote oneself online while furthering the academic process will not fall on deaf ears. In many cases, "students are given server space to develop Web sites, RSS feeds, blogs, podcasts, videos, discussion boards and e-mail groups for clubs, groups and political campaigns."

Of course, student-written content will undoubtedly lead to a sea of  lesser-quality information through which interested parties have to sort (and one can be forgiven for mistaking that description for that of the current blogosphere). Another increasingly popular idea is that of the virtual classroom whereby students in varied locations can be simultaneously present in one academic environment-an online real-time space created and maintained by all involved parties. The concept of virtual worlds may seem impenetrable to some less versed in the operations of web-based communities, but once students and adults join such groups, the process explains itself. The wide-open nature of programs like Second Life, which are increasingly used in an academic context, allows those involved to create, in essence, whatever sort of small or large-scale experience they want - and, much like a standard classroom atmosphere, students will be noted for their interactive efforts. The virtual classroom does not make passive lecture attendance easier - if anything, its allowance of more direct tracking methods places more emphasis on individual contributions. In simpler terms, teachers can watch and record what every student is doing throughout each session.

Offering new methods of communication and study will not make students more productive, and, at the risk of sounding "old hat," we can categorically state that nothing will replace the direct interaction between a professor and his or her students. While these developments most likely do not mark the end of the "traditional lecture," they have large and uncertain implications.  Some will again question the positive effects of the state of "equality" such a system may encourage: while a student certainly deserves an active role in his or her education and even, arguably, carries an obligation to question its validity, will virtual trends grant student voices an authority equal to that of the professor? Do such practices provide a venue for shameless self-promotion or further the much-maligned sense of diaristic obsession that goes with social networking?

A veritable legion of media commentators proffers depictions of the younger generation as either self-centered, materialistic, perverted browsers of the information network or defenseless victims of the same. The image of our society's younger members as a crew of nihilists obsessed with violence, drugs and pornography sounds suspiciously like the time-tested amoral teen caricature. Consider, however, the pervasive influence of television compared to that of the ever-expanding web. Interactive entertainment is certainly more beneficial to the learning and critical thinking processes. And it makes perfect sense for the platform to extend its influence into the classroom and beyond. For traditionalists given to cringing at the very concept, the question is how quickly they will allow themselves to be left behind.

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