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'Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching' by R.M. PAllof & Keith Pratt

By Sandra J. Smith / December 2001

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Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom: The Realities of Online Teaching is a comprehensive and concise text that delineates issues in today's online learning environment (OLE). These issues concern both online teachers and online learners and relate to all aspects of the modern, fast-paced, technology-based learning environment.

Though it's clear that the OLE is changing rapidly as the technology advances, online education's recent path has been surprising. Expert observers correctly foresaw dramatic changes in the technological elements used in online teaching and learning. However, the most dramatic and significant changes have come in the area of course delivery—even the experts have been astonished. Now it seems that there is no end to the questions that arise on this topic. As a result, authors Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt focus much of their attention on this area.

As an aid to keep readers on track concerning questions of online course delivery, the authors divide the text into two parts. In the first part, "Rethinking Education for an Online World," the authors discuss the ongoing debate regarding traditional and online education. This debate is central to any coursework developed and used in the online classroom, and includes a wide range of opinion. For example, Maloney (1999) says that some students thrive in an online environment where they tend to feel liberated, and therefore, an OLE, when properly structured, is suitable to their learning needs. On the other hand, Martin (1999) says that there is absolutely no substitute for a student's experience of being in a classroom where he can interact with his instructor.

One Piece of the Puzzle

Palloff and Pratt take an entirely different view; they instruct that online learning should not be seen as a total education delivery system, but as an enhancement to the delivery of education as a whole. It should be seen for what it has become—a useful component of today's educational system.

Two main points are worth making to those still reticent to embrace online learning. First, the learning outcomes of students who use technology in an online learning environment are comparable to those of students who engage in conventional classroom instruction (Phipps & Merisotis, 1999). Second, with more technology comes a greater variety of options for course development, course delivery, and the expansion of online learning. Given these advantages, it's fair to say that online education is here to stay. But as the number of its proponents grows daily, many concerns that did not exist—even as recently as three years ago—will surface.

One such concern is the financial disparity between small colleges and large universities that may not have the money and resources to enter the online learning market. The economics of the OLE is an issue for serious consideration, since technologically deliverable courses require sizable financial investments. In many instances, smaller schools are unable to enter the OLE as enthusiastically as their counterparts. The authors refer to this education demarcation as the "rift between the have and have-not institutions."

Further issues have arisen over course development and delivery arrangements. This has occurred because many colleges and universities don't include faculty in the decision-making process. Additionally, disputes have occurred between faculty members and administration over the ownership of courses developed by faculty. Again, the authors quote Maloney (1999): "Ownership is one of the most contentious issues in online education, because who owns a course bears directly on who profits from it." Issues of intellectual property and copyright are extremely serious and must be carefully considered by both faculty and administrators.

Training needs lead to other questions for both students, instructors, and administrators. Successfully designing, delivering and using online courses requires more than just learning how to use the software that makes online course participation possible. Those concerned with teaching online must know what is required to build an effective online learning community. The text suggests that as online learning becomes more widely utilized, the methods of instruction must themselves change to meet the increasing demand.

It Takes a Village

One issue immediately becomes apparent: Who should teach online? Not all faculty members are adept at providing instruction in this medium. Instructors' personalities, adaptibility, and training combine to help determine which particular faculty members are best suited to online instruction. The students, too, need to know more than how to navigate the online classroom. They must learn how to form an online learning community.

All these issues combine to represent real challenges for both academicians and learners in the OLE. Schools and universities ask themselves if they can afford the dollars necessary to compete in the OLE, with all its attendant developments. With their busy lives and economic pressures, students ask if they can afford to be nontraditional students. The authors ask if either of these groups can afford not to engage in the OLE experience.

Part Two of this book, "Teaching and Learning in Cyberspace," is dedicated to online teaching and learning. Through a series of questions and illustrations, the prospective course developer is given tips and guidance on the specific processes of developing a course. Exhibits of such things as discussion boards, course home pages, and sample final examinations help the reader through the planning processes for creating an online course.

The Student Experience

Two chapters in the last section are devoted to the online student and his requirements for a successful online learning outcome. Topics discussed include varied learning styles, difficulties in beginning classes online, the general confusion and frustration sometimes felt when learning online, and the roles students take in their own learning experiences. In addition, student participation, student attendance, and student work collaboration are also explained. In the final chapter, the authors offer a review of the most important points discussed in the text.

The entire text is most informative, with some extremely helpful resources at the end of the book. The resources give a comparison of syllabi for online and face-to-face course delivery, and an example of a systems theories course as it might appear in the online learning environment. Following these examples is a collection of additional online resources, including course-authoring software and Web sites on course development and intellectual property and copyright issues.

Lessons from the Cyberspace Classroom is a most valuable reference for both teachers and students. It is an insightful and practical guide to the sometimes uncertain environment of online learning.


Maloney, W. Brick-and-Mortar Campuses Go Online, Academe, Sept.- Oct. 1999, pp 18-25.

Martin, W. A. Being there is what matters, Academe, Sept.-Oct. 1999, pp. 32-36.

Phipps, R. & Merisotis, J. What's the difference? Washington, D.C.: Institute for Higher Education Policy, Apr. 1999.


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