When Pat Shapley taught advanced organic chemistry the traditional way, she often found herself looking into a sea of blank stares -- or no stares at all. "I'd have a lecture hall full of students, most of whom were sleeping or eating Cheerios," the University of Illinois professor says. "No one ever asked questions."
That all changed when she put her course on the Internet. Suddenly, shy students were piping up with questions and class members were excited to learn at their own pace.
Shapley's course is an example of good Internet teaching, according to a study of online learning by a group of University of Illinois professors. They found that online courses can be high quality, but not if they become university cash cows filled with faceless teachers and anonymous students, designed to make a quick buck.
The idea for the study came in 1997 after university President James Stukel discussed a vision for the school that included an emphasis on learning "beyond the bounds of time and place." At the time not all professors embraced the idea.
Among the skeptics was John Regalbuto, an associate professor of chemical engineering, and the chairman of the professors' group at the university's Chicago campus. Regalbuto said he was concerned that the quality of teaching would suffer when students and professors didn't interact in person.
"The good news is high-quality online teaching can be done, but it's not going to be the moneymaker administrators think it's going to be," he says.
The study concluded that good online teaching still requires professors to maintain a "human touch" with their students, usually through small classes. The professors also said students benefit more from social settings where they can interact with classmates and teachers.
Shapley's online chemistry class includes quizzes three times a week and "lectures" that have pictures and a text that students can click on to learn more about unfamiliar concepts. Clicking on a diagram of a chemical reaction, for example, might show that reaction taking place step by step.
She says even a large class with as many as 100 to 180 students can work. Students still talk with teaching assistants in small groups in addition to going online.
Matt Wargin, a 22-year-old University of Illinois journalism graduate, says he liked an economics class that offered online quizzes.
"I loved the fact that it was online," Wargin said. "I didn't have to be in a specific room at a specific time."
Janet Poley, president of the American Distance Education Consortium at the University of Nebraska, says college students bound to certain places by work or family find the Internet ideal for their courses.
According to a U.S. Department of Education survey during the 1997-1998 school year, about 1.4 million students were enrolled in college-level, credit-granting distance education courses.
Regalbuto says one key element is that professrs must be involved for online courses to be successful. He sees some advantages to online learning, although he still wouldn't support an entire online undergraduate education but adds, "Perhaps the best of both worlds is to be a resident student with access to these online teaching tools, because some of them are fantastic."