To talk education with Linda Harasim is to talk about the last million years of life’s history, and what makes us human, and the slow and steady shifting of the Earth’s tectonic plates re-shaping the ground beneath us, and being a young woman in a field dominated by snowy-haired old men, and the impending battle between man and machine. In other words, she does not take learning lightly.
Harasim speaks with the modest rasp of someone who lectures for a living, though she would take issue with that word. The lecture is a relic of the 20th-century, Harasim says, when schools prepared students for manufacturing jobs. Today’s society needs students who can create knowledge, and Harasim’s practice of online collaborative learning—one of many forms of e-learning that have evolved since the emergence of the Web—is about teaching students how to think critically.
In our feature story about digital literacy, Harasim discusses whether online education is living up to its promise.
E-LEARNING, BY THE NUMBERS
- Today, three-quarters of colleges and universities in the United States offer online courses, and, among those schools, almost 60 percent offer degrees that can be completed entirely online. More than half of college presidents believe online courses provide the same educational value to students as face-to-face ones.
- In the 1980s, the nascent Internet was still more of a marvel than a fact of daily life. Computer networking meant connecting machines—coupling a computer to a printer, for example. Harasim saw its potential for linking humans. “I had this vision that computer networking would completely revolutionize education,” she says. “However, no one else thought it was a good idea—they thought it was a crazy idea.”
- The number of students taking classes online has climbed for decades; in 2012, 6.7 million were enrolled in at least one online course. Since then, the rate of enrollment has slowed, though it still outpaces enrollment in traditional colleges.
LOGGING ON TO LEARN
A far-flung group of women from across northern Canada were among the first to take a graduate course entirely online.
Harasim taught her first online class in 1986. The 12-week course brought together an all-female group to learn about computers in education. “The first thing we wanted them to do was to see the computer not as a technology, but as a window,” she says.
“The design was somewhat daring,” she wrote later of the class. “While the challenges could be the stuff of legends, so were the results. The collaborative approach pioneered in these courses was successful, generating extraordinary levels of active and equitable participation, high completion rates, quality work, and strong user satisfaction.”
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