April 1998 // Vision
Reframing Our Classrooms, Reframing Ourselves: Perspectives from a Virtual Paladin
by Cynthia Whitesel
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Cynthia Whitesel "Reframing Our Classrooms, Reframing Ourselves: Perspectives from a Virtual Paladin" The Technology Source, April 1998. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

These are exciting times to be a teacher. The same-time, same-place learning environment is being displaced by the anytime, anywhere learning model. For many of us, learning has fast become a matter of what we do, not where we go. Education is no longer driven by supply, but by demand—and technology has become a large part, perhaps the leading factor, of that demand. Distance education and the virtual university have become parts of the emerging mainstream.

The ubiquity of technology in contemporary society means that learners attend classes, not just to learn about the technologies, but to use them as a resource for learning. Experts from anywhere in the world can facilitate an online discussion, or be accessed using the Internet. Learners are no longer hindered by a provincial perspective—the global context and diversity of thought in an online class promotes a whole new environment that enriches the learning experience and prepares them for real-world challenges.

As a "virtual teacher", I am a part of what is in the forefront of education. According to Peter Drucker, distance education is the fastest growing business of the nineties. This may be the future for many of us who currently teach in colleges and universities as adjuncts. The trend toward downsizing full-time faculty and using adjunct faculty is forcing many of us to create different means of working at our chosen vocations. How can we as part-time instructors adapt to this inevitable trend? Indeed, how can we take advantage of this trend and "click"?

Using Technology to Deliver Content

The advent of technologies designed to effectively manage information and communication has offered us the unique opportunity to reframe both our teaching strategies and classrooms, and has provided the means to meet the needs of learners more than ever. The virtual campus, in particular, has changed how we accomplish our mission.

Hansen, Silver, and Strong (1995) identify four different learning styles—directive, interactive, inquiry-based, and creative. While learners usually favor one style, the effectiveness of the learning environment increases when all four styles can be accommodated. In fact, an effective environment can increase students' repertoires of learning styles, thus multiplying their opportunities for lifelong learning.

Technology does not teach students; effective teachers do. A virtual learning space—effectively created by a competently trained instructor—can deliver on the promises educators make to their students. It can help us deliver our content to a growing number of learners over a widely diverse geographical area.

Not only have information and communication technologies changed our teaching strategies, but they have also transformed the entire learning experience. Since many of our students are organizational learners, they are investing in gaining and retaining skills to succeed in a competitive environment through developing core competencies for their organizations. They have little tolerance for a directive style of instruction that creates a hierarchical relationship in which teachers are seen as experts and they are considered novices. They demand a more flexible and fluid learning experience in which their expertise and competence are respected and rewarded. Technology has leveled the playing field.

Teachers as Facilitators

As learners are reframing themselves, so must we, the teachers. Our roles have become interconnected with those of our students. We must facilitate the process of discovery for them. Thus, at the same time that a teacher is setting up a computer conference for a business management class in which students must learn to solve complex organizational problems, that teacher may also be attending computer-conferenced training on Chinese management techniques through a private consulting firm in Tientsin.

We must be prepared to create a daring and innovative curriculum in which spur-of-the-moment change is possible, and in which the teachable moment occurs frequently and is readily exploitable. This is possible in the virtual learning environment, in which seemingly unlimited resources are available at the click of the mouse.

Virtual learning enables us to move away from an anachronistic system that forces participants to adopt an educational or institutional culture instead of adapting the best practices of the myriad cultures represented in our classes. Distance learning students come from diverse social backgrounds, live in different locations, and make the virtual trek to campus in the privacy of their own learning space using computer technology. We must make this trek with them by creating new learning environments that work. We can teach lifelong learning skills for our different academic disciplines. This new educational environment transcends time, proximity, geography, and cultural and linguistic diversity.

Even as we are preparing our students to join existing knowledge communities and are encouraging them to build their own, we must develop and connect with our own communities. As we motivate and support them in their self-directed learning efforts, we ourselves must remain lifelong learners both in our content areas and in these technologies if we are to retain respect as content experts and educators.

Learning from the Past to Shape the Future

Learners are reframing themselves, teachers are reframing themselves, and the learning process is necessarily transformed by the players. We are no longer asking ourselves individually or institutionally whether distance learning via the World Wide Web is efficacious. The results are in.

In their Distance Education (1991), Verduin and Clark document over 50 research studies from around the world that verify that distance learning methods achieve similar—if not superior—results when compared with traditional methods of teaching. You need only refer to the February 12, 1997, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education to see the impressive list of higher education institutions whose strategic planning includes investment in distance education technologies.

The market is there. Since most organizations will have to become learning organizations in order to survive, we will have to provide the lifelong learning opportunities. For most of us, learning will be integrated with work and widely available. Systems thinking will prevail, in which we will need to assess the output, not just measure the value of the input. Learning will be the measure of success, and performance will be the product. Will our teaching measure up?

Workplace projections are that technology will play an increasingly important role in the delivery of education, with 50 percent of students or more in the near future never entering a physical classroom. The American Society of Training and Development reported that in 1996 alone training delivered via desktop computer doubled, the highest growth curve for any training technology.


Learning is no longer simply something one does to prepare for the future. It is a complex and adaptive process in which the roles of teacher, learner, and content are constantly changing, open and flexible. Learning is not defined as what happens when a learner has access to information; it is the consequence of processing and acting on that information.

The educational challenges are clear. Can we as instructors keep up with changing technologies and opportunities? Can our educational institutions—where classrooms, concepts of place, classroom socialization, and interaction are very important—reconcile with the Internet world where time, place, and diversity are not terribly significant? How will our teaching change? How will classroom materials and texts change? How can we adapt what works in our classrooms to cyberspace? How can we keep our teaching interactive, dynamic, and vital?

Technology has allowed teachers to access another level of information. The virtual university is a reasonable and appropriate extension of our educational mission. Technology is, and will continue to be, a driving force in higher education. But the real progress is still within the realm of human intellectual and practical needs. Needs drove the progress that created the market for at-home learning as well, and needs will drive the future of the Internet and distance learning. In the future, high-tech will have to be high-touch.

Opportunities abound for those who are willing to risk change. The challenging prospects for the future demand that we be creative and innovative. There are no other footsteps into the forest—the path is our own. To paraphrase Calvin, "It’s a brave new world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy. Let’s go exploring!"


Hansen, Silver, Strong & Associates, Inc. (1995). A learning styles inventory for adults. 34 Washington Road, Princeton Junction, NJ 08550.

Verduin, J. & Clark, T. (1991). Distance education: The foundations of effective practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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