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We're off to see the wizard
creating a good online learning program is like venturing off to the land of Oz

By Ernest J. Yanarella / May 2002

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We in higher education must face the new technological and educational challenges represented by the Web and and its use in online learning. I would like to suggest that L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz offers allegorical significance—and inspiration—in our quest to gain command over this new mode of educational delivery. The story can be read as symbolic of the journey that so many high school teachers and college instructors are taking to convert onsite courses into online learning.

A contemporary reading of this timeless children's story is not without historical precedent. Indeed, my model here is Henry Littlefield's noted essay, "The Wizard of Oz: A Parable on Populism," written in 1964. As Littlefield showed (and others reiterated), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz can be read as a stirring parable of the populist challenge to the increasingly industrial, plutocratic America of the late 1800s. Its thinly disguised characters represent the powerful political forces of the time, warring for the soul of the country. The book sought to redeem the democratic promise of America's rural farms and communities, which were under assault by railroad barons and Midwest bankers who threatened to destroy a way of life still tenuously rooted in agrarian culture and economy before the turn of the century.

The symbolism of its key characters is relatively straightforward. Dorothy is the confused but determined instructor seeking enlightenment in a foreign land. Having been removed from the drab, banal world of Kansas (i.e., the everyday world of on-campus college instruction), she is thrust into a world of strange creatures. Like the dazed college teacher, Dorothy seeks that technological mecca where a wizard can work his magic and grant her wish to return home.

She quickly finds herself in the company of odd fellow travelers who help her complete the journey. The Scarecrow's wish for a brain symbolizes the college instructor's need for command over this new medium. The Tin Man's lack of a heart points to the love and compassion necessary to help realize the medium's potential. The Lion's timidity reflects the behavior of many teachers who have been frustrated by the demands of online learning. Like the Lion, they must summon the courage to explore new modes of instruction in a seemingly forbidden electronic environment.

The Yellow Brick Road serves as the winding pathway to technical competence in implementing a Web-based course, and to becoming a member of the technological elite on campus. The mythical Emerald City is the sought-after Internet Metropolis, where all the latest technological wonders are on display, tempting college faculty with the promise of dazzling online instruction—and perhaps the lure of lucrative commercial spin-offs.

Mirroring Dorothy's initial disappointment with the charlatan wizard, online instructors learn that no technological genie will serve as some deus ex machina for Internet-based learning. They also learn that they'll find the necessary intelligence, compassion, and courage—the essential ingredients to online learning success—inside themselves, just like Dorothy.

But what of the seemingly inscrutable magic shoes Dorothy wore during her entire adventure, which all along possessed the power to take her back to Kansas? Those shoes function as a reminder that however far we travel in our quest for technical prowess in online learning, we can always return home to our "Kansas"—the everyday classroom and on-site students—with all the pleasures and rewards of face-to-face interaction. Though we may think "it's good to be home," our ventures in the land of Oz will change us forever as teachers—and certainly for the better.


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