Confessions of a Virtual Skeptic

October 12, 2015


I’ve been teaching for a while. I started at the University of Virginia in1976. Back then the tape recorder and slide projector were the vanguard educational technologies. After a decade at UVA I spent a number of years helping publishing companies digitally deliver content that previously resided only on very heavy lead plates – a kind of informational alchemy. The world of information delivery changed dramatically during that period.


When I returned to UVA in the early nineties I was surprised to find the academic world was generally unmoved and uninspired by the ongoing information cataclysm. Having a technology as well as an academic background, I was convinced the new information delivery tools, including an upstart innovation called the “world wide web,” would enrich the brick and mortar learning experience. But I was also convinced, as the majority of faculty members remain today, that face-to-face interaction was essential to a deep, vibrant and maximally productive learning experience.


I had reason to be skeptical. We’d been teaching in more or less the same manner since Plato established the Academy 3,000 years ago. It works. Why mess with a good thing? But I had an additional source for my skepticism. During my senior year in high school, in the grip of existential questions about the meaning of life, I decided – for reasons that completely elude me now – that I could answer those questions through a correspondence course in electronics. The experience left me with a robust skepticism about both the value of distance learning … and the reliability of double-your-money-back guarantees.


My correspondence school debacle notwithstanding, I was entirely wrong about virtual learning. I added a synchronous component to my UVA courses and offered my first full distance learning class about 12 years ago. What I’ve come to understand is that a properly designed distance-learning environment can provide a deeper, more engaging and more productive collaborative learning experience than a traditional face-to-face classroom.


And my distance learning curve continued even further when I once again stepped outside the academy – this time as a consultant -- and discovered a design element that propels virtual learning to an entirely new level.


In future posts I’ll share 1) why I’ve come to believe the virtual learning experience, while different from that of a face-to-face classroom, is no less effective when properly designed and executed. I’ll also share 2) what I’ve learned – much of it from my students – about the design elements necessary to create deep, engaging and authentic virtual learning experiences as well as 3) the theoretical models that support them.




I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, “Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States,” Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC. (February, 2015), p. 21








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