by John Edwards

ONLINE UNIVERSITIES Fall Short on the Social Front

Oct 15, 20012 mins

The typical online college makes Brigham Young University look like a party school?no frats, football games, concerts or beer blasts. And that’s just the problem, says John Seely Brown, coauthor of The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

By focusing solely on academic issues, online universities fail to give their students the social context that allows information to become meaningful, claims Brown, Xerox’s innovation officer and former director of Xerox PARC in Palo Alto, Calif. “Take away the social context and what you have is essentially a person with a computer and no education,” he says.

Brown maintains that students transform the information they get from instructors and texts into meaningful knowledge through conversations, arguments, lunches, discussion groups and other real-world activities. “Bull sessions actually do have a lot of value,” he says.

Colleges, businesses and other organizations that offer Internet classes are gradually beginning to recognize the need for social interaction. Many have already added social surrogates to their online instruction. E-mail, instant messaging, chat rooms and threaded discussion boards can help bring students and instructors closer together, says John Flores, executive director of the United States Distance Learning Association in Needham, Mass. “These tools allow a sense of intimacy to develop,” he says. “You don’t feel like you’re just reading a book on a screen.”

Flores admits that an online school will never be able to offer the same degree of social interaction as an ivy-covered, brick-and-mortar institution. Still, he believes that streaming media, videoconferencing and other multimedia technologies will eventually help make online instruction almost like being there. “For people who don’t have the time or resources to attend a real-world school, online instruction that incorporates socializing technologies is the next best thing,” he says.