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© 1995, Assessment & Accountability Forum

Virtual Time Computer-Mediated Distance Learning Versus the Carnegie Mode

John D. Murphy, Summer, 1995: Volume V, Number 2

Higher education professionals are both attracted to and repelled by the thought of utilizing technology to provide education. The attraction is the value of being able to communicate and discuss great ideas to a virtually unlimited number of people without geographical and time barriers. The repellent is that technology will prove the undoing of the academic republic through the liberation of the control of information from the professorate. The reality is much less volatile.

Since 1989 the University of Phoenix has provided the opportunity for qualified working adult students to earn their undergraduate and graduate degrees solely through their personal computer. UOP Online currently enrolls over 1100 degree seeking students and, unlike many other computer-mediated educational programs, has a 65 percent graduation rate. One of the primary reasons for this success is that the programs are delivered via virtual, rather than real, time electronic learning environment.

Building on the success of UOP Online, Apollo Group, Inc., has developed a multimedia educational delivery system called Apollo CyberEd Systems (ACEDS), which will be made available to organizations, corporations and institutions to enable them to provide educational and training products and services electronically.

The following ten characteristics demonstrate the distinct advantages of the ACEDS model over the traditional Carnegie Unit instructional model. I recognize that each of these distinctions does not apply to all instances of instruction based on the Carnegie Unit or the ACEDS model. The predication for this discussion is that these attributes are common to each approach.

Evidence of Student Participation/Learning Engagement. In the Carnegie Unit model (CU), which is the nationally recognized measure of instruction in the United States, the student must occupy a seat in a classroom with an instructor for a minimum of 15 hours for each credit earned. For a typical three credit course, a student is expected to spend 45 hours physically occupying a seat in a classroom with an instructor. Attendance policies vary by institution and instructor, but simply by physical presence, a student is usually accorded status as a participant, and is judged, de facto, to be actively engaged in the learning process.

In ACEDS, students must evidence their participation and engagement in the learning process through text-based communication. For students utilizing ACEDS, whether studying or documenting knowledge through text, their learning engagement is virtually constant. Students receive no credit or acknowledgment for the time they spend at a computer screen, but rather for what they have electronically archived through their text-based communication. No text? No participation, learning, grade or credit.

Primary Instructional Method. CU-based courses and programs use the lecture as the primary mode of instruction. Generally, students are passive participants in this model because their participation and learning engagement is primarily manifested by sitting and listening to, not interacting with, the instructor. Verbal interactions between and among the instructor and students are limited both in number and duration. Interactions for which the students are held accountable are restricted to the instrumentalities of papers and tests at isolated points in time. No record of verbal interactions is kept by either the student or the instructor.

The ACEDS curricular and teaching/learning interface specifies both learning outcomes and activities, and requires the instructor to organize the course material into very specific and manageable components. The instructor focuses the students on discrete elements of the curriculum which each student is required to address in a text-based response. Following the directions provided in the instructor's text based lecture, students read and reflect upon the related material; engage in text-based discussions with the instructors, members of the class and members of their 2-3 person study group; and demonstrate their knowledge of the subject matter through text-based responses in virtual, rather than real, time.

Class Location and Time. CU courses are, by definition, restricted to a specific time and place. If a student is available at the time and place at which the course or program is offered, then he or she can take advantage of the learning opportunity. If the student is not available, he or she usually can't take advantage of it.

Most educational institutions utilizing the CU model provide the bulk of their educational offerings between September and December and February and May primarily during the day at a central location. This schedule of learning opportunities suits full-time students and the employees of the educational institution, but anyone who lives at a distance from the site where the education is being offered, or who has specific learning needs and requirements related to their personal circumstances and/or professional responsibilities, will often have to make extraordinary compromises to take advantage of the education, or will have to forgo it entirely.

With ACEDS, courses and programs can be made available 24 hours a day, every day of the year through a PC. Because ACEDS communications are text-based, students may communicate through their PC whenever they have time available. This allows persons living in widely dispersed geographical locations and time zones to interact electronically whether at their homes or offices, or on the road.

Although students and instructors communicate in virtual time, courses and programs offered through ACEDS are highly structured, and both students and instructors are generally required to evidence electronically archived communication several times weekly.

The elimination of the time- and place-dependent learning through the utilization of ACEDS provides almost universal educational access to persons of all ages who have access to and the use of the requisite hardware and conferencing software configuration, curriculum and teaching/learning interface.

Communications Timeframe. The CU model of instruction is predicated on the oral communication from the instructor and the student between two narrowly prescribed points in time. This lecture is primarily a monologue by the instructor from which the student is expected to derive the body of their understanding of the subject matter.

The interaction between the lecturer and the student is "real time," since the student must be present if he or she ever wishes to ask a question or engage in dialogue with the instructor. Since no record of spontaneous verbal interaction is maintained, any benefit that might be derived from such interactions is not available to the student who misses a class.

Students in ACEDS are able to achieve the learning outcomes because they must regularly evidence constructive engagement in the learning process. The virtual time educational dynamic provides a sustained level of critical interaction since all students are required to evidence their knowledge of the course material through text-based communication within a prescribed time frame. Mandated interaction is only possible in a virtual time learning environment, since in a real time classroom -- depending on the personality of the student and the instructor -- only a limited number of students can interact meaningfully.

With ACEDS, all communications are archived, enabling both the student and the instructor to review previous discussions to help maintain continuity in an interactive learning process that occurs at different places in time over an extended period.

Communications Methodology. In the CU teaching/learning model, the instructor generally serves as the sole source of knowledge. Students participate passively for the bulk of the time spent in the classroom and demonstrate their knowledge through written tests or papers at isolated points in time.

With ACEDS, students and the instructor communicate in virtual time. This requires and allows students to read and reflect upon the instructor's discussion of specific elements of the curriculum; place that discussion in context through the reading of related course material and text-based interactions with other students and commit their understanding of the material to text. Unlike real time interaction, once students have committed their understanding to text, they are able to review and modify it before sending it off electronically.

Communications in ACEDS are electronically archived so that both the student and the faculty member can build upon previous understandings of the subject matter. Each time a student commits his or her thoughts to text and uploads it electronically, he or she has effectively published his or her understanding of the subject matter. If a student hasn't read the material, completed the exercises, or reflected critically, it will be plainly evident to the instructor and other students. Each student utilizing ACEDS must take responsibility for his or her own learning or he or she will be considered neither a participant nor engaged in the learning process. No student is anonymous in a course taken through ACEDS.

Learning Environment. In a lecture-based course, students have limited interactions with the instructor and among themselves. Because cooperative learning is minimal, students effectively compete against each other. In many courses, instructors grade students on the curve, thus perpetuating the competitive nature of the learning process. Students uncomfortable with expressing themselves verbally in a large class, who do not wish to call any attention on themselves, or who engage in what they perceive as verbal competition with other students may choose not to interact with only marginal, if any, consequences. As the result, both their interactions and learning are often narrowly confined to written papers and tests. Students who desire to actively engage in an in-depth discussion of the course material are usually denied the opportunity because such discussions would interfere with the delivery of the lecture material, or dominate, and thus skew, the discussion because of minimal participation by the other students in the class.

With ACEDS, each student is both required and guaranteed the opportunity to present his or her opinion and understanding without undue influence or duress from others who might happen to disagree, or verbally dominate the discussion. Because communication is text-based, everyone's ideas, understandings, and opinions are perceived as having equal merit. The only discriminating factor is the clarity of the written text and evidence of the mastery of the subject matter.

The virtual time communications structure of ACEDS guarantees each student the opportunity to participate equitably and democratically in the learning process. Gender, appearance, mannerism, and personality play a circumscribed role, since it is the quality of the knowledge and understanding reflected in the text-based communication upon which both participation and performance are both perceived and evaluated.

Student Participation. In courses and programs structured on the CU equation, particularly with large enrollments, the interaction between and among the instructor and the students is highly circumscribed, and probably voluntary. Most students only evidence their engagement in the learning process when required to submit a paper or take a test.

With ACEDS, students evidence their engagement in the learning process through regular text based communications. The requirement of affirmative engagement places the responsibility for learning on the student. Unlike a traditional classroom where the student must only demonstrate learning at isolated points, with ACEDS, all students are required to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding on an actively ongoing basis to both the instructor and the other students. This socialization of the learning process helps ensure a high level of student participation and accountability.

Student-Instructor Interaction. The interaction between the instructor and the student in the CU classroom is unstructured, with student-faculty interaction usually being spontaneous. Despite being primarily passive recipients of the knowledge provided by the instructor, students are perceived and judged to be actively engaged in the learning process if they are physically present. As a result, the instructor gains limited knowledge of, or personal interest in, the individual strengths and weaknesses of each student, which limits his or her role in helping improve individual academic performance.

Students utilizing ACEDS are required to interact with the instructor and other students for a minimum number of times during any given course. Because this interaction is text-based, both student and instructor develop well-informed understandings of each other. By nature, virtual time communication is intense because of the requirement that communications be clear and concise.

The ACEDS instructor is required to respond to all communications from the students, and must critically respond within a prescribed time frame in a very detailed manner. Because of this requirement, over the duration of a course, an instructor is able to assist students in improving their performance in very specific ways. The result is heightened performance both on the part of the instructor and the student. This communications dynamic also ensures that participants remain highly focused and involved in the learning process.

Student-Student Interaction. In the conventional classroom, student participation is unstructured rather than structured. While students are not precluded from responding directly to the lecture subject matter, the one-way communications bias of the lecture format dampens the interaction dynamic. If interaction does occur, it is almost exclusively between an individual student and the instructor. Rarely, unless organized as one of the major components of a particular course, is student-to-student interaction required.

All students utilizing ACEDS are required to interact with other students in direct relationship to the issues identified by the instructor in the context of the course requirements. This interaction is cooperative, and provides an opportunity for students to share ideas and the responsibility for researching and providing information about specific areas of the subject matter of the course. Student-to-student interaction is mandated for both the learning group, i.e., all students enrolled in the course, as well as for each student's respective study group. As with the interactions with the instructor, all communications are text-based. This helps ensure that students maintain a high level of interest and engagement.

Educational Access. Almost without exception, all courses and programs conformed to the CU equation are restricted in both time and place. If an individual wishes to enroll in a particular course, he or she must attend that course at the time and place specified by the institution or entity offering it.

Courses and programs provided through ACEDS are available without restriction as to time and place, thus allowing most individuals to take advantage of the educational opportunity in the context of their personal and professional lives. The elimination of these restrictions provides extraordinary educational access that cannot possibly be duplicated in the traditional CU course structure.

ACEDS and other forms of electronically delivered education programs offer great promise in helping restore much of what has been lost in the practice of education.


With the ACEDS computer-mediated model, students are required to take responsibility for their own learning and may not remain an anonymous member of the class often mistakenly thought to be engaged in learning simply by physical presence. ACEDS and other forms of electronically delivered education programs offer great promise in helping restore much of what has been lost in the practice of education.

It should be clear from the above discussion that I believe the Carnegie Unit is no longer an appropriate model for structuring the classrooms of higher education, virtual or physical. Advancements not only in technology, but in the sciences of instruction and curriculum development as well as the sciences of assessment have made instruction based on demonstrated learning the desirable and efficient alternative.

There is certainly much more to be said on all sides of this issue. I invite other views from all who have a stake in the future of higher education in our technologically permeated knowledge society.

John Murphy is
Senior Vice President for
Institutional Affairs for Apollo Group.

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