Today, online Winter Session courses at Cornell feature a mix of synchronous and asynchronous content, interactive activities, breakout sessions, and more, but the earliest digital courses offered very different experiences.
In December 1997, Victoria Jones, PhD ’01, became the first person to teach a credit-bearing digital course for Cornell’s School of Continuing Education (SCE).
Dr. Jones, currently chief global affairs officer at University of California, Irvine, recently spoke to SCE about her pioneering experience and what online learning (or distance learning, as it was then called) was like in its infancy.
Thank you for sharing your teaching experience with us, Dr. Jones. What was the first distance learning course you taught for Cornell and how did it originate?
I was doing coursework at Cornell for my PhD in communications. As part of my position, I taught “Communications 272: Principles of Public Relations and Advertising” in the classroom.
I was then hired to create and teach a digital version of that course.
The School of Continuing Education has a long history of “extending” the reach of Cornell and wanted to do that by moving to a digital, online format—like, “let's take advantage of this.” I think that was their original idea of doing digital.
So how did you create a distance learning course twenty-plus years ago?
Digital was just starting up. We had email, but we did not yet have a learning management platform, like Canvas.
I had taught Communications 272 on campus and in person during Summer Session, and so we videotaped the lectures for a winter class.
The camera was in the back of the lecture room and I stood in the front doing all the normal things. There were no close ups, there was nothing interactive about it—there were no props or sets or anything. The students were just watching a roving body.
It was all recorded as a complete course. I think it amounted to twenty-some hours of tape.
How did the students get the course material?
When students picked up videos, they were the large 6x4x1 bricks with physical tape inside—VHS tapes! Most of today’s college students haven’t ever handled a VHS tape or any tape – they were raised with compact discs and now streaming. The VHS tapes were reproduced by the Cornell bookstore. The student would buy the textbook and videotapes in person since there was no web-based anything at the time. There were something like 20 videos they had to pick up. Students brought suitcases and bags to get all the videotapes home with them.
What was it like to teach the course at this early stage?
The students couldn’t do breakouts or work in pairs (like they would in my classroom-based course) to apply what they had just learned in lecture, so instead I created a series of exercises they could do at home.
For example, I’d ask them to find a product they used every day and then have them explain why they choose that brand. Or, I’d have them interview another student… things they could do from their living room.
All the completed daily assignments came to my email so I could grade them. It was actually a little overwhelming. I was grading 35 assignments a day.
You ended up teaching the course digitally during Winter and Summer Session for almost 15 years. How did your online teaching method evolve?
Of course, the initial way of watching the videotapes was just too static. I believe in an interactive classroom, so somewhere along the way, as the course got more popular and because technology was rapidly improving, I re-recorded the classes.
I was living in Brazil at the time and didn’t have access to a Cornell studio, so I hired a professional to film me. I did 20-minute segments and added them as links in learning management software. It was much easier for the students.
Once we had learning management software, I switched to assignments where the students commented on one another's work and then they were graded on the assignment itself and on the value of their contributions to their colleagues.
I learned a lot about online learning as I went. There was no roadmap back then. Today, developing online pedagogy is a profession!
What is the value of online learning for students? Cornell students who’ve taken an online Winter Session course in the past say that they appreciate the ability to get ahead, explore a new field of study, or meet a requirement while studying from home and/or working.
Advertising and public relations generally interested a lot of students, or it was something needed to fulfill a requirement, but I think there were also students who were behind and needed the credits. When I taught it during Summer Session, I learned there were quite a few students that needed to work over the summer. I realized that this course was a great way for those students to earn the credits they needed by having the flexibility to complete the course on their own time.
Charles Jermy Jr., SCE’s interim dean, whom you worked with, told me a story about an unexpected benefit of taking your class. He said one of your students was taking the course at home and her father ended up watching your videos with her. After each lesson, they had great discussions about what they just learned. The father told Dean Jermy that it was one of the most wonderful experiences he had ever had with his adult daughter.
I got goosebumps. Wouldn’t it be awesome if families could take courses together? Maybe SCE could offer family programs online!
That’s a fantastic idea. We may have to make that happen. Any other thoughts on your pioneering days of online teaching?
As a professor, I also appreciated the flexibility of the asynchronous format. During the Summer Session class, I was able to teach from internet cafes around Europe. Remember those? There were only DSL—land lines and no easy way to fire off an email over your phone.
Yes! It’s interesting to see how online learning started and see how far it’s come.
At first, it took a lot of time to get those videos done, and they were bad, but by the time I was able to prepare videos specifically for the online student, they became good videos, entertaining. I could add a PowerPoint with an outline and then have the camera come back to me, that sort of thing…it was a long way from the videotape with a camera in the back of the class and a tiny body moving back and forth.
I ended up teaching the course for many years because it worked for students and it worked for me. I loved interacting with my students. Getting to know someone through digital media was new at the time, but at the end of the term, my students said they felt like they really got to know me and hoped they would see me on campus one day. They had an advantage in that regard, they saw me, but I only knew them through text. Now we are all used to two-way interactions. We forget how quickly things have progressed.
Winter Session online, now in its 25th year, is in full swing with nearly a thousand students enrolled in classes from January 3-21. During this three-week period, students can earn up to four credits before spring by choosing from a wide range of online courses taught by Cornell faculty. The courses are open to anyone from undergrads and high school students to alumni and any interested adult.
Shelley Preston is the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions’ communications and marketing specialist.