The Future of NC: Wire service

 In Features, February 2016

Google’s Chromebooks are now as conventional for K-12 students as Texas Instruments calculators were for baby boomers, but making Web-based learning effective is a huge challenge. Professor Abbie Brown’s mission is to advise teachers how to design courses that engage students with cutting-edge technology. His work at East Carolina University earned him the UNC Board of Governors’ annual award for excellence in teaching in 2014, making him the first professor devoted solely to online courses to win the honor. He discussed online education during a recent interview.

What is the main focus of your work?
My view is that to make good, quality educational technology, we need to create more instructional designers. All industry
predictions signal that these people will become increasingly important. It is something that the state is poised to do.

Are student convenience and cost cutting for institutions the main drivers of online learning?
McDonald’s is convenient, but is it great food? I want to be a five-star restaurant, offering the most satisfying experience possible. We also can’t just think of using online courses to scale up, attracting huge numbers of students. That’s the McDonald’s view, but we want to offer really great cuisine and produce master chefs.

How many students enroll in your courses?
My classes are never larger than 25 students. I was once asked by another university to teach a course to 100 students. I told them that I wouldn’t do it because the research shows a community of learners of 25 or fewer people maintains its cohesiveness. We become part of an interconnected network. We may not meet each other until graduation day, but we know each other very well.

How does your workload compare with traditional courses?
It takes a lot longer to teach online. My counterparts meet with students two times a week for 90 minutes, then have some office hours. My classes are 90 minutes a day, five days a week. (He teaches three sections each semester.) My students don’t meet as a group, so I have to give them a lot of my time when they have questions.

Will the traditional campus survive?
I don’t see it disappearing. The campus will redevelop its own importance as a place to meet and engage in face-to-face conversations. There’s a tremendous need to talk in a setting that isn’t recorded. Faculty and students need to talk among themselves. 

What do you think about the UNC System’s future in online education?
I’m optimistic that we have laid the groundwork, because we’ve made a lot of investment in excellent distance learning. Many administrators and fellow faculty members recognize the importance of this program. I think North Carolina is doing a pretty darn good job.

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