Students entering Fairleigh Dickinson University this fall will have to take a portion of their coursework via the Internet if they hope to earn degrees. The recently announced prerequisite is a first for U.S. universities and has the potential to alter the higher education landscape.
The mandate brings with it a slew of training challenges, development needs, and finally, questions about the importance of student-teacher interaction. For example, when students are cut off from traditional college interactions, do they by default become more isolated? According to Michael Sperling, interim dean, the potential benefits far outweigh any such risk.
By using the Internet for some of its courses, the New Jersey-based university hopes to internationalize its approach to learning by drawing on a worldwide pool of professors. A renowned expert of Latin American literature based in Argentina, for example, can share his or her expertise with a group of students in New Jersey. "The Internet is a great resource for bridge-building in this way," says Sperling. "It doesn't have to be isolating or alienating." And the university's new mission statement—to provide a global education geared toward producing global citizens—reflects that belief.
Sperling also hopes that the university, with branches in Teaneck and Madison, N.J., as well as Tel Aviv, Israel, and Oxfordshire, England, will prepare students for entry into a workforce in which a premium is placed on technological skills. University officials see Internet technology as a fundamental tool for research and information organization—prime workplace skills for which a university provides training. With Internet capabilities becoming essential, students will need to maneuver, judge and filter through the medium in a sophisticated manner, according to Sperling.
The university is investing $5 million over a four-year period for the experiment, with the bulk of those dollars going to faculty training, system upgrades, and software development and design—most of which will come from Blackboard.com and EduPrize's instructional design templates. Students have access to text materials online, as well as through the traditional trek to the university bookstore. Professors post a syllabus, and online tests are essay-based to avoid any hackers with a penchant for cheating. Online class discussions take place on threaded bulletin boards, with one-to-one contact always available through phone, e-mail or traditional office hours.
Over the past four years, Fairleigh Dickinson has offered 35 optional online courses and currently requires one basic computer skills class. To fulfill the new prerequisite, students must take at least one Internet course per 32 credits, generally one course annually. Some 1,100 incoming freshmen will take the Basic Internet Research class this fall. In their sophomore through senior years, online choices will alternate between electives and a narrow range of core requirements.
The university's experiment with optional online courses has been well received by students and professors, with expectations high for the new prerequisite. So, what does that mean for training professionals today? Nothing, really. But those of tomorrow will find more and more employees weaned on Internet classwork—ready to learn from it and, perhaps, expect it within the infrastructure of job training. —D.B.