Online, or “cyber-,” courses in the history of medicine are in their infancy. In this article we explore experiences at two institutions, in the still largely uncharted waters of what is coming to be known as “distance learning.” Our intent is to alert readers to some of the online resources for teaching the history of medicine. We also share our concerns about the prospects of higher education in cyberspace, and hope this article will generate discussion from readers about the implications for both faculty and students of the rush toward the virtual university.
At Allegheny University of the Health Sciences, column editor Russell Maulitz uses a number of distance education techniques in the clinical setting, 3 while Mick Smith has inaugurated a small Web-based undergraduate course in the “History of World Medicine.” 4 What distinguishes Allegheny’s medical history course is its heady entrepreneurial spirit in an institution that is still gingerly testing these waters.
In contrast, Kathleen W. Jones, guest coauthor of this column, teaches at Virginia Tech (VT)—a large, land-grant university in southwestern Virginia—where her course, “Health, Disease, and Medicine,” is just one [End Page 734] of a broad array of “cybercourses” available to students in many disciplines. Although it is not yet an entirely online, “virtual course” (as are a growing number of VT classes), 5 “Health, Disease, and Medicine” contains a significant Web component: during the fall 1997 semester students accessed most of the course material via the Internet, participated in online class discussions both inside and outside of class time, and constructed Web pages as part of a research assignment. Following these experiences, KWJ calls herself a “skeptical believer” in the value of these new teaching technologies. Despite (or perhaps because of) the explosion of material, including new journals, in this field, RCM, too, invites readers to employ a healthy dose of skepticism when launching into these waters.
What have we learned from our experiences in the virtual classroom? Instructional technologies “work” as a learning resource for some students, on some levels. And we can report that even mild technophobes may find it a pleasurable challenge to develop and maintain the online teaching units. Yet in both our institutions, students and faculty alike retain reservations about investing the hopes of higher education in the technological revolution. The Virginia Tech course provides one measure of the possibilities offered by the distance learning environment. The course also suggests some of the limitations; indeed, in the story of one professor’s confrontation with online learning there are so many nightmarish episodes, it sometimes seems amazing that the course was taught at all, much less taught successfully.
Since the early 1990s Virginia Tech has been a leader in the utilization of instructional technology. 6 Bureaucratic phrases such as “breaking the credit-for-contact-hour paradigm” (suggesting an end to the traditional lecture classroom) have become popular as administrators and legislators explore ways to teach more students without increasing the number of instructors. Distance learning has seemed to many the ideal solution to the crunch of budget and enrollment figures. Yet until quite recently most faculty, we believe, employed computers mainly for word processing, barely touched e-mail, and had scant knowledge of the World Wide Web. To generate faculty interest in distance learning, Virginia Tech has offered many inducements—including training workshops, new computers, monetary stipends, and release time from teaching. Jones, for example, began her conversion to Web-based instruction at a summer Faculty Development Institute that provided five days of intense training [End Page 735] and earned each faculty member a new computer. In its various schools, Allegheny, at this writing (late winter 1998), is considering several methods and incentives to bring faculty similarly up to speed.
Some VT departments have already become avidly committed to the possibilities of online learning—in one instance, the VT mathematics department has taken over the space formerly occupied by a discount department store and installed a “Math Emporium,” a computer laboratory for first-year students with 240 workstations. 7 Although historians at VT have been slower to take...