Norbert Elliot on the Virtues of On-line Learning

Humanities Professor Norbert Elliot

NJIT has a long and distinguished history in the pioneering use of technology in the classroom.  NJIT was, for instance, the first university in the nation to use a “Virtual ClassroomTM,” a phrase invented by two professors here.  One of them, Murray Turoff, designed the first group communication-oriented crisis management system, and developed the Electronic Information Exchange System, a computer-mediated system to support computer-based communications.

Another professor here, Norbert Elliot, has been teaching distance learning classes since the mid-1990s.  He is a traditionally trained and award-winning English professor who, over the years, has adapted his teaching techniques to meet the expectations of the iPod generation.  So these days, instead of writing lectures, Elliot makes pod casts, designs websites and creates webcasts.  He is known for his creative use of technology in the classroom.  In the below interview, Elliott discusses his use of technology in the classroom and details what makes for a good distance-learning class. 

What does a distance-learning class offer students that a regular class doesn't?
First, let’s agree to abandon the term distance learning. The students I work with—in traditional NJIT classes or in classes offered through NJIT’s Continuing and Professional Education (CPE) division—quickly become asynchronous learning communities. The phrase comes from a book, Learning Together Online: Research on Asynchronous Learning Networks (Earlbaum, 2005), edited by Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Ricki Goldman, two NJIT professors. In the Department of Humanities, we have replaced the term “networks” with “communities” because we emphasize that which is essential to any community: the process of inquiry.

Students engaging in asynchronous learning may be in China, the Information Commons or the Van Houten Library at NJIT. They can access the information from anywhere, anyplace—but the key to learning is the concept of authentic engagement.

How do you personalize such a class, and bring the class together as a learning community?
Exactly by building a sense of community. We achieve what NJIT Professor Nancy Coppola has identified as the process of “swift trust” in these asynchronous communities. We as teachers are everywhere present in these learning platforms, guiding, responding, and shaping the ideas of the students within a structured environment.

What kind of student is best suited for these classes?
Our research shows that only the most dedicated, engaged students are suited to participate in asynchronous learning communities. Whether in a credit-bearing class or a Continuing and Professional Educational class, the participant must be truly engaged in seeking and applying information. Equating “distance learning” and “easy convenience” is a tragic error—for the instructor and for the participant.

How long have you been teaching asynchronous learning classes and how have improved your teaching? Has your teaching changed, or the technology, or both?
With NJIT Professors Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff, I was among the very first to participate. If we take 1996 as the key year for NJIT—the year that it received its first major funding for E-Learning—then I was part of that early team. My traditional (face-to-face) teaching has become much more focused each time I employ a new technology. Presently, I am podcasting through NJIT on iTunes U. Students are expected to read the required material and listen to the podcasts posted on iTunes U before class. As such, the classroom time is used for problem solving, not for information delivery.

The same is true from my asynchronous work—whether for credit bearing or CPE work. The students read or listen or watch class material on line before class, so in class our focus is always on application. How to apply that knowledge and solve problems.

Sometimes, in regular classes, a few students tend to dominate discussions; a few others comment occasionally, and the shy or less-interested students never contribute. Is the same dynamic at work in your asynchronous classes?
Within an asynchronous learning community, everyone must participate—there is no where to hide because everyone must be engaged in problem-solving activities. As a result, the shy take on a rhetorical presence in the written format of the course that they would not necessarily take on in class. In addition, those whose first language is not English are much more willing to take part in, say, discussion postings—their pronunciation is not an issue. Again, though, let me be emphatic: there is no place for the “less interested” student in an asynchronous environment because of the high demand level.

What asynchronous classes have you taught most recently? What have students gotten out of them?
In the fall of 2006 I taught my graduate research methods seminar. That seminar never meets face-to-face. This semester, I am teaching my documentary studies seminar. That undergraduate course meets face-to-face, but all work is posted on-line, and all the lectures available as podcasts on NJIT on i-Tunes U.

In both cases, students find that they can work on ideas with me daily, rather than just once or twice a week, as in a face to face class. As well, they find that the work we do together is very focused and very intensely directed toward their interests.

The drama of a live classroom is, at its best, unsurpassable. How do you try to match that in your on-line classes?
That is often exactly what it is—a performance. One clever hot-dog instructor can charm the applause out of a class. But when the period ends, what, exactly, has been the student been left with. An answered idea? An engaged review of a paper or of an equation? A suggestion for further improvement, or a smile resulting from a professor’s comment on work well done?

New technology has allowed for asynchronous classes, yet in your asynchronous classes students are learning to master new technologies?
Candidly, over the past five years, the technology has so improved—become so very user-friendly—that learning new technological applications is not really a barrier. My role is to introduce new technologies that seem appropriate to the class in question. In documentary studies, podcasting is a wonderful way to record, in a digital fashion, key interviews. So the students learn the technologies that are appropriate to the task at hand.

Have you taught Continuing and Professional Education (CPE) classes? What's the value of those classes?
CPE work is a wonderful way for the researcher the teacher who bases his work in research to expand knowledge in the field. With my work over the years for CPE—most recently with Cardinal Health—I was able to examine and refine my ideas regarding communication practice and application. My work with Cardinal Health, a Fortune 100 company and a leader in pharmaceutical manufacturing, allowed me to examine the use of asynchronous reporting platforms and their application to current good manufacturing practice within the pharmaceutical manufacturing field.

In two years, I worked with Cardinal Health to develop a system that allowed federally-mandated compliance reporters. I had the chance to teach employees in both traditional and asynchronous formats. How else could I have had the opportunity to examine emerging technologies within a specific setting were it not for CPE? As a result, my seminar in Health Communication improved vastly because of my field experience. Employees at the company said they gained enormously from my university-based experiences with the new media and its application to health communication—work I was familiar with as a member of the UMDNJ School of Public Health.

What ingredients make for a good asynchronous learning community?
That’s an easy one to end with: Two things: A knowledgeable instructor and committed students.

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)