Online learning may feel new, but it is only the latest in a long line of technologies adopted by American educators. Faced with a vast nation of diverse people, educators took to the trains and streetcars to meet students in the nineteen century and broadcast classes on radio and television in the twentieth century. The University of Chicago led many of these innovations.
William Rainey Harper directed the Chautauqua movement of adult education before becoming the university’s first president. Not surprisingly, he included an adult extension school in his vision for a new research university on the western shore of Lake Michigan, and the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies continues his mission today. From the 1930s to the 1950s NBC broadcast The University of Chicago Round Table, the first public affairs program on national radio. In the mid-1950s the university produced The Humanities, a thirteen-week noncredit course, on Chicago's public television station, WTTW. By 1956, WTTW would become the first station to televise college courses for credit.
Two recent alumni are continuing these innovations, bringing a Chicago education to students around the country and globe. John Acevedo, PhD'13 (History), and Adrian De Gifis, PhD'10 (Near East Languages and Civilizations), recently developed and taught online courses with skills they gained as teachers at the university. Acevedo taught "Constitutional Law" and "Introduction to American Law" at the Law School of the University of Southern California and De Gifis taught "History of Islam" at the Graham School.
Acevedo, who received a juris doctor degree from USC in 2004, helped launch an online master of law program for international legal professionals who need knowledge of the US legal system for their work, as well as for North American professionals outside of Los Angeles. The online format attracts practitioners with families and careers who could not relocate. De Gifis, who gained experience reviewing curriculum as a visiting assistant professor of history at Loyola University New Orleans, helped the Graham School translate its well-respected humanities courses to an online format. Based on the success of the pilot, De Gifis is again offering "History of Islam" in June.
Acevedo drew on his teaching in the College in the early weeks of “American Law” when students read and discussed primary sources, such as the Federalist Papers. "While the technology may be different the skills remain the same," he said. For De Gifis, too, "good pedagogy, grounded in historical methodology," makes for a successful online or "terrestrial" course. He finds teaching online ideal for classroom aids (high-resolution maps, glossaries, historical timelines) and varied final projects (from traditional papers to online presentations).
"Naturally, you miss interacting with the students in person," De Gifis said. For Acevedo webcams could not convey body language or demeanor that show a student understood the material. To overcome these limitations, he experimented with ways to integrate case studies with the Socratic method in “Constitutional Law”: "I assigned each student to brief three cases, thereby reinforcing the ability to synthesize and draw out the most important aspects of a case. Similarly the use of hypothetical problems helps students to understand that the general principles of law can apply in varying situations." Both agreed that advances in technology are bridging the gap by making office hours more accessible, allowing students to share projects among themselves, and using video conferencing for classroom discussions.
For De Gifis, the same "barriers to entry" that prevented students from participating in higher education (location, transportation, and cost) in past centuries can be overcome with greater access to the Internet and online learning. Acevedo called the interactive nature of online courses a "huge leap forward" over earlier forms of distance learning: "There can now be direct interaction between faculty and students as well as between students. The direct interaction is a vital part of education." The chance to bring students together from many nations and with different experiences was one of the most rewarding parts of their courses. "As a scholar interested in comparative law I always have to restrain myself from quizzing them about their home legal systems," Acevedo happily concluded.
By Joanne M. Berens, MFA'93, firstname.lastname@example.org