Steve Laluna's Chapter

The importance of, and more specifically, the dependence on communication in American society is growing at a frightening rate. Instead of a cell phone nailed to the side of the head, an mp3 player conjoined to the hip, or a keyboard glued to the fingers, the merging of these many individual forms of information technology into a single medium—encompassing everything we want to see, read, hear, and know into one simple package—prevents us from having to walk around as a race of gadget-strapped gargoyles.

As a race, we don’t want to multitask with too many different things at once. But we can certainly do it when many different things are presented to us within a single frame. The way we’ve visualized communication and the internet, from email to networking and more, is a form that is not meant to last. As the World Wide Web is spun thicker and thicker, every new strand is a new development and a new piece of technology to influence the way we live our lives. Control and customizability are integral factors in feeling comfortable with its use. By personalizing the aspects of it that are most relevant and pleasing to our own lives, we long to centralize every piece of it into one place that we can reach and interact with using minimal effort.

We need to be constantly aware of everything that is going on, exactly when it happens. We need to be able to find anything we want exactly when we need it. We need to feel connected and running at the same pace with the rest of the world. We’re saturating ourselves with a monsoon of information on a daily basis, and by training ourselves to handle it, we’re left with a desire for it to be unloaded upon us at an even faster rate. Visualizing the future of communication signals a need for rethinking our conventional systems to accommodate this super-modern mindset.

The university setting is a microcosm for this ever-growing dependence on communication. Even the functionality of a regular university class has become inextricably tied to the use of the internet. Professors use email to inform students about any number of class-related issues or to transfer class documents. Third-party course management systems like Blackboard act as a virtual realm for class coordination, discussion, and assignment submission. At this point, we’re so immersed in this digital environment that class lectures themselves are seemingly the only aspect of a course grounded in tangible reality. The entire system feels like a singular, unified whole—essentially, a “digital campus.” We’ve walked way too far in; reversion to a primitive, pencil-and-paper means of academic organization would be, at the very least, horrifying.

Lehigh’s own Library and Technology Services, as well as the WIRED program (“Worldwide Information Resources in Every Dorm”), comprise the backbone of the university’s communication technology management along with several non-university-based services. As technology constantly improves and the face of the internet continues to change, ensuring the adaptability of the university’s own systems is a vital task. But the role is not only driven by available tech—it is largely the needs of students and faculty that helps to determine what elements of the system need to be tweaked for efficiency.

This chapter seeks to explore several areas of technology at Lehigh that constitute major aspects of daily information exchange in the digital university. As a pseudo-case study, Lehigh will serve as a representation of the 21st century American university that is “threatened” by the emergence of the digital campus. In the day in the life of a Lehigh student or faculty member, interactivity with this cyber realm is practically unavoidable. A general overview of some of the notable and most often used features will help to illustrate just how firmly fixed they are in university life. Are these daily functions really becoming assimilated into the digital world? Is the physical campus as we know it being rendered obsolete? But I digress. There’s no robot revolution on the (near) horizon, no central campus AI that bears the risk of going rogue and declaring itself sentient—merely the required re-envisioning of how to most effectively manage university education with modern technological advances.

The Virtual Learning Environment

The phrase might bring to mind the fantasies of the 1990s, where the near future seemed to hold incredible potential with new exploration into technology for virtual reality—complete sensual immersion into a virtual world via the use of advanced computer hardware. Both science fiction and scientifically-educated prediction might then have envisioned the concept as a computer-generated classroom, rendered to recreate the image of one that might be found in reality.

When students entered this virtual learning domain, perhaps they’d see avatars of one another; each would have a virtual representation of his or herself while inside the program. Maybe these avatars would be primitive, polygonal figures with the students’ faces ghastly pasted upon a blocky head, a walking aberration permanently fixed with the same smiling face found on the student’s ID. Maybe advanced rendering technology would allow students to customize the appearance of their avatars in greater detail, with lifelike figures that bore an actual resemblance to something human. On the other end, perhaps students would have creative control in determining their avatars’ appearances, even enabling them to look outlandish, like a medieval knight, or distinctly inhuman, on the level of some bizarre giraffe-headed man. If schools already have issues with dress codes and arguments about clothing creating distractions in the classroom, though, then the latter would just be a nightmare on a whole new level.

Students might be required, in addition to their books and standard tuition payments, to purchase hardware components to access the virtual system. Suddenly, the groans and complaints of having to spend $100 on a single textbook might pale in comparison to the price of a new VR headset. But hey, it’s absolutely necessary if one wants to attend class. From the comfort of our own homes, we jack in to the main school network and access this amazing virtual environment, hassle-free. Within the virtual classroom, the teacher lectures the students from behind his or her own avatar, transmitting in voice and perhaps even with floating captions above the avatar’s head. Through the avatar’s eyes, the student can freely look around the classroom, confined to the seat, but able to hear and communicate with the rest of the class using a microphone headset built into the VR helmet. And as for writing and test-taking, the keyboard dethrones the pencil and paper as the primary composition elements for school, unless a stylus and tablet are preferred instead. Or perhaps we’ll take the route of using a touchscreen for everything. Maybe even holograms. It’s the future, after all. The point is, in such a scenario we might have to expect ourselves to eschew tradition on all fronts, even the way we input data.

The “virtual learning environment” of the future would function just like a regular classroom without the need of being inside of a classroom in reality. In fact, there need not even exist a physical school building at all, not when all enrolled students can have the full experience from their living rooms. This also eliminates the problem of absences due to illness in many cases, so long as students can function reasonably. The lack of a physical campus means that tuition dollars no longer need to be allocated towards things like maintenance of the grounds or dining and residence costs, and that’s only the beginning. Assuming that access to the network is available, professors could even earn their salary by delivering their organic chemistry lecture from a beach in Bermuda. Current widespread use of 3G telecommunications makes this ever more plausible. It seems, as a whole, that when the concept of necessitating a full student and faculty presence on a defined, physical campus is removed, everything about school just seems to become a bit more… convenient.

In retrospect, the concept of this virtual classroom seems absurdly silly to us. But at the heart of it all, the future that we might have believed would happen is much closer to the truth than may appear, and it’s the idea of a nonphysical classroom that lies as the backbone.

So what do we mean by virtual learning environment software, then? The dominant examples of the software currently at use at Lehigh are Blackboard and Moodle, but this technology has held a place in colleges and universities nationwide for years already. This software is web-based, and provides a service for education as a central hub for communication and management. Blackboard is paid for by an annual/monthly fee of [DETAILS ABOUT ANNUAL COSTS, ETC]. It has served as Lehigh’s choice since [FIND OUT DATES]. As of 2010, however, Lehigh has announced a transfer towards Moodle, an open-source variety of VLE, with full implementation [BY THE SPRING 2010 SEMESTER?]. Clearly, many administrative decisions influenced the switch, but the appeal of cost-free open source is always appealing, especially when functionality and support doesn’t suffer. While Blackboard and Moodle are both unique in their layouts, workings, and processes, they and the many other forms of this software run with the same general principles at the core.

Each university will have its own affiliated network in the software, usually integrated with the main URL and hosted on the school server (http://bb.lehigh.edu, for example, gives access to Lehigh’s generic Blackboard login page; Moodle can be found at http://coursesite.lehigh.edu). From anywhere on the internet, not only from the campus itself, students and faculty are able to log in using their primary campus account usernames and passwords in order to access personalized homepages. Tailored to the account, the user has access to pages for the classes he or she is registered for, along with other general settings. Within a class page, one can find relevant sections for nearly all aspects of the class. Professors can upload and host documents and PDFs in one section, where students are able to find their class assignments, notes, and other assorted academic paraphernalia. Faculty accounts have administrative options that allow them to organize and categorize files and folders within each section to their own liking.

This customization and accessibility factor is already a major point of convenience. By digitally hosting course documents on the Blackboard server, professors need not worry about printing out scores of sheets to be distributed in class. On the other side of the coin, students need not worry if they miss class or lose a document, because getting it back is as easy as logging in and printing out a new copy. Some professors will even expect students to have read the course syllabus online before the class meets for the first time. Such a widespread familiarity with the software means that all parties involved are expected to have a particular level of technological proficiency as a part of simply being a part of the class.

The software does much more than just allow students to read and download files, but to upload documents as well. A section for assignments means that professors can expect that students will hand in assignments virtually to the server using basic file uploading. There’s no longer an issue with arguing over whether or not something was handed in on time, either, as there exists the option to set an automated cutoff time that will lock out any uploads after the deadline. This also provides verification to the student as to whether or not the assignment was submitted successfully, whereas with email there is always the possibility of a message experiencing a problem during the sending process, or it being accidentally deleted from a professor’s inbox.

Virtual Learning Environments also become an extension of internet communication in general. Thanks to its integration with university accounts, both faculty and students are able to access a complete list of users associated with a particular class page and send mass emails to the entire group. Professors might create and use separate groups for mass emailing students or teaching assistants. Especially in lecture hall classes where populations are in the hundreds, this becomes incredibly useful to send a message to all members of a group en masse. Communication isn’t limited to just email, either. The software comes with its own varieties of forums and discussion boards that can, again, be customized and organized by those with administrative faculty access. The possibilities are expansive for their potential use; students can use the forums to respond to questions, hold debates, post reactions to articles, critique essays, and more. While a discussion forum lacks the live, real-time aspect of an actual class, it can still prove to be very useful for out-of-class matters.

On top of everything else, each form of VLE software comes with a slew of other features and applications. From calendars to wiki and blog pages to online quizzes, the virtual learning environment provides substantial potential to lead a learning experience all in one online package.

You know, that kinda sounds like some advertisement. The past few paragraphs all do, actually. No, I didn’t even really think about it that way as I was writing it, either. I’m totally just inserting this in here after the fact. Admittedly, I’m a tad disgusted by the way it all sounds as I read it over, but in retrospect, I think this is the perfect excuse to point something out.

Beneath the surface, we have to remember that the VLE, at least in its current form, is a product. And like any product, each individual service offered will have its competitors, will require appeal in order to gain success, and most importantly, will need to sell. If the product is adopted on a comprehensive scale, a larger market will inevitably grow. Consider for a second the position a university is put in when a service that is integral to the university’s functionality is in the hands of a third-party company. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, though, there are still more possibilities to explore in what the VLE might mean with its implementation. We’ll be back to this thought later.

Making the System Work

Let’s revisit the idea of the virtual reality classroom for a moment. It’s apparent now that the VLE has quite a bit in common with these overambitious, super-modern ideas. Predictions for the virtual classroom in the future probably weren’t too far off from the way things are proceeding now at all; the ideas were just obscured by the appeal of the sophisticated hardware and the literal “virtual world” that we dreamed about. The driving notion behind all ideas for technology is the obsolescence of the physical, tangible classroom, paving the way for a future where education can be conducted effectively without the need of any campus. Sound a bit unnerving? There’s still much that technology needs to replicate before it can truly challenge the value of a real classroom. However, many recent developments and programs on the internet, quickly becoming incorporated into everyday use, cause us to consider deeply how long this status quo will last.

There have been some instances where classes at Lehigh and other universities have utilized the program SecondLife, usually experimentally, as a medium for hosting a class. The software, which has gained a great deal of popularity since its inception in 2003, gives its users the ability to design custom 3D avatars of many different forms, and to interact with others in an expansive virtual environment. It’s gotten to the point where the virtual world even has a functional system of currency that can be substituted for money in the real world over transactions. It’s still a far cry away from (albeit clearly inspired in part by) the idea of Metaverse as described in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. The novel describes the entire future form of the internet as this type of virtual world, transcending the traditional computer interface. VR hardware is used to provide full immersion into a digital reality where even the avatars are capable of full ranges of realistic expression.

This suddenly takes us back to those ideas of the “virtual classroom” discussed earlier. It’s pretty much the same idea, isn’t it? The same goal of a fully functional virtual world runs the same as it does within SecondLife and the Metaverse. If anything, I’d say that this just might be an indication that maybe the whole virtual classroom idea isn’t actually too absurd after all—at least not in the concept at heart.

What I see as the biggest problem with all of these things—which shouldn’t come at a surprise at this point—is effective implementation. Currently, most of SecondLife’s use is only for entertainment, and while many institutions may make occasional uses out of it, they’re forthright regarded as experimental. That is, even when we want to use the program “legitimately,” we still acknowledge its “illegitimacy” as a realistic substitute for these kinds of uses, whether it’s teaching a class or hosting a debate. I submit that a big issue with getting it to work is that we just can’t take it seriously in its current form. Not without improvement, but also not without limitation. Technology, sure, that’s something that can always be improved upon; we certainly know it will. We’ll make our worlds more realistic, we’ll give them more options, we’ll incorporate features like voice communication. But a free-roaming 3D world with all kinds of bizarre aberrations running around doesn’t make for the best location for a classroom. Seeing all of these elements together puts us in a “video game” mindset, and we can’t help but see the whole thing as purely a means of creative recreational fun.

SecondLife might be a very loose example of the shared goal of collective virtual communication, but it’s certainly not the next step. In order for us to be able to swallow it, we’re going to have to start bottom-up, and it’s going to be a very gradual process. The impact of developments for the internet and digital communications in general is, quite evidently, going to define the shape and direction of VLEs in the future, and not the other way around. What we might do is look to some of the popular features of the internet today and the possibilities they offer. The more we start using individual technologies on a regular basis, the more intuitive it will be to incorporate them into the structure of the digital campus.

As was aforementioned briefly, one of the important elements of the classroom that still remains untouched is the idea of real-time communication. While the idea of class-based discussion online is already used in messageboard format, this medium may succumb to antiquity faster than we think. For the sake of cliché repetition, we are living in a high-speed world—and that means we’re going to need greater fluidity in digital discussion if there’s any hope of it rivaling reality.

Google Wave, while still in beta at the time of this writing, presents an ambitious means of re-envisioning internet communication by merging several different mediums together into an innovative new form. It boasts the end of email’s multi-decade reign, and that it’s time for a king fit for the current century to rise up and take the throne. Wave is puzzling at first, has a bit of a learning curve in getting used to it (then again, this is all indicative of a change in thinking, which is exactly what we’re going for here), but is a pleasure to use once it becomes comfortable. To spare all the gritty details of Wave (and to prevent myself from temporarily becoming a spokesperson), the general idea is that it attempts to present the exchange of messages and data as a real-time, ever changing entity, accessible and editable by all parties involved in the discussion. Once Wave makes its official launch, it will be exciting to see whether or not it can walk the proverbial walk and pick up widespread usage. And if it does, the individual “Wave” app may make its mark as powerfully as Wikis and Blogs have, becoming a staple in the general features of internet use. It’s here that we’d probably see it most prominently featured in VLEs; perhaps it will be a substitute for the current discussion boards, or seen as a separate idea altogether. Either way, Waves would prove incredibly useful for group collaborative projects or brainstorming over the internet.

Skype is another nifty piece of software that we might turn our gaze to. A voice communication program, Skype is unique in that it even associates with and can make calls to actual telephone numbers, which means that it serves a communicative purpose outside of the internet. It might have a particularly good fit for the VLE scenario because users have their own accounts, similar to the traditional user/password login system already in place. Going back to the centralization idea, if campus technology user accounts had a feature similar to Skype, or if future VLE programs just simply integrated Skype apps (probably using the usual Lehigh digital accounts to log in with as a Skype identity), it could usher in campus-wide use with the same ease as communicating with email or discussion boards.

This is another major step towards the likelihood of the virtual classroom. Through the use of microphones and webcams, students and faculty might hold digital conference classes, or at the very least, use it for out-of-class meetings. The idea of a class meeting via webcam sounds rather informal, but videoconferencing is not uncommon in the business realm or even on news television, and has held its place for a good decade. The use of video media in the classroom is already making its mark and increasing in popularity. For the past few years at many universities, some professors have allowed classes to be recorded and then made available as podcasts or in the form of other downloadable content for students. Obviously, this lacks the real-time element of the webcam conference idea, but the point we’re getting at is replacing the need for attending class at all. And in the sense, “downloadable classes” can serve this purpose just fine.

A problem that presents itself when this technology is available: if a lecture is recorded and available to students at any time, why bother waking up for that 9 AM class when it can be viewed just the same at any convenient time? Note-taking is made even simpler when the video or audio can be paused. Taking attendance as a way to enforce students to show up may be infeasible, especially with larger classes that number in the hundreds (and these are the ones that are most likely to have recorded lectures to boot). But hey, this is an issue that’s up to the professors to handle creatively—I’m sure there are plenty of incentive or punitive measures to influence grades that they can think of.

Either way, and very importantly, this still lacks the real-time, “live performance” element of a classroom. And I stress the idea of it as a “live performance.” It’s watching a video of a concert in comparison to actually attending the concert. Just as important as real-time communication is the simple comfort of human-to-human interaction. Students will inevitably have questions based on the material presented to them, and waiting hours to get a response from a professor isn’t going to cut it. The simple pleasure of being able to speak face-to-face with a real person is something that we take for granted, and it’s true that even aside from student-professor relationships, there is much value to be placed on the interactions between students themselves as well. For seminar courses, in particular, there is no substitute for the fluidity of a group of people sitting and brainstorming around a table. Simple. Primitively simple, maybe. But nonetheless, it seems glaringly obvious just how claustrophobic the same situation might feel if every student saw each other as tiny thumbnails on their laptops while the discussion proceeded. Barely any expression of body language, no ability to pass a sheet of paper to someone across the table, and the tunnel vision demanded by the lens of the webcam—these are all individually subtle aspects whose significance becomes apparent after a long period of being forced to deal with them. Even in a massive class with otherwise little participation from students, it still deadens the experience if you’re staring at the pixilated apparition of the class-that-once-was on a monitor. Videoconferencing and class recordings are a fantastic resource to have, no doubt, but unless you’re taking correspondence courses or something of the sort, there’s just no substitute for the authentic academic performance that our professors practice. And as the eager audience, our educational experience is enriched by being able to feel its genuine presence.

Easy Access? Always Preferable

Centralization is a huge theme behind the idea of a singular digital identity. Normal internet use requires us to create separate user accounts for everything we register for and use—email, forums, media—and naturally, it gets overwhelming. Common internet safety suggests that we utilize different usernames and passwords for each of these, and while it is more secure, since access to one account would not compromise the others, it’s also a massive hassle to retain all of this information. Passwords are forgotten much of the time, new accounts must be made, and those new accounts may be gone even more swiftly than their predecessors. But the need for myriads of accounts seems to be diminishing as technology progresses onwards. We’re seeing a convergence of many different types of online data under one heading. Affiliation and partnerships between websites and integration of one app or piece of technology to another means a shared idea
Students, faculty, and even clubs and organizations at Lehigh University each have their own username and password, which are used universally throughout the digital campus and any affiliated external pages (Blackboard, Moodle, Lehigh Google Pages, and more).

Google has been at this centralization idea for a while now. Gmail, Google Reader, Google Wave, Google Docs, and the list goes on—with a single Google account, a user has access to all of these applications and services. When Google develops a project, it maintains exclusivity in the early stages by keeping it invitational. At the same time, however, registration is always free to the public. However, once the applications are out of beta, registrations open up. I talked about Wave before, as an example, which is still in these beta stages right now. The integration of so many of these different innovative apps under the main Google account gives people access to many services without needing to create accounts for them separately. But there’s something even greater than that at play here; to the user, it doesn’t feel like many different applications are even being used at once. The illusion that Google manages to pull off so effectively is the idea that the all the services we need to access on the internet can be found in one place, can be done under one heading, and are all part of the same patchwork blanket. The popularity and ease of use of Google’s system has earned it major success and millions of fans worldwide, and with many new projects on the horizon, it’s sure not to let up anytime soon.

Is Google, then, representative of how the internet is attempting to re-envision itself? Not to say exactly that Google pioneered the whole thing, but quite unsurprisingly, we can see elements of the “Google illusion” already at play in Lehigh’s own digital campus. Right at the top of the main Portal page, there are icons that link to Moodle’s Course Site, Blackboard, a user’s Lehigh email account, Banner (for registration and student information settings), The Hub (for community and extracurricular involvement), plus many other features like a personalized calendar and campus news and announcements. Again, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a matter of Lehigh copying Google’s format at all. This common interface, having a central body from which all of the “digital departments” might branch off from, seems to be the modern direction as a plausible choice for an intuitive design. With everyone’s own Lehigh username and password, logging into a single account to access all of these branches streamlines the entire digital network, keeping everything at a Lehigh member’s fingertips.

A Never-Ending Battle for the Fate of the Virtual World

[It’s only a matter of prediction what may happen in competition among different VLE services. Lehigh’s aforementioned move towards Moodle may be a signal of preference among universities to adopt open-source VLEs instead of paying regular fees for their use, particularly when their functionality rivals or exceeds that of the ones that charge for services.]
[Would we see a parallel of the Google system with VLEs as well? As competition among these services inevitably increases, so comes the possibility of mergers and acquisitions in their service market.]
[Consider the possibility of a VLE monopoly, in one scenario.]

In Mike’s chapter about food, he discusses the significant role that Sodexo plays in keeping Lehigh’s campus life running. While the regular use of digital communication hasn’t quite attained the level of importance of a biological need like eating, it’s getting pretty close. That means the maintenance campus services for it are ever so much more integral. We can look at Sodexo in a similar light as we may look at Blackboard or Moodle. These companies are contracted with the university (and a plethora of others who subscribe to the service) to make sure that the virtual campus remains active and fully functional. That means they are also responsible for regular upkeep and upgrades to the system.

I think it’s a little unfair to say that something lacks legitimacy because it is open-source. The reason why I bring that up is because—as I’ve given the two examples of Google Wave and Skype already—there are so many useful services on the internet available for free public use, but traditionally, institutions have held a tendency to opt for using private or corporate-based software. I tend to see it as a lingering paradigm from the previous century—if you’re gonna get it for free, it’s probably too good to be true. But I also think we’re moving away from this mindset. As open-source products continue proving their success and oftentimes superiority to private ventures, it comes time to rethink whether or not choosing the public option is a bad thing. No, I’m not a communist, I’m just saying that if open-source software has functionality and support that’s at least as good as its private competitors, then why not go with the former and save yourself several thousand bucks a year? In some cases, as was the question at Lehigh for a while, much of the reluctance comes from the costs of actually implementing the software. Having to instruct all members of the faculty to use the new software might exceed the benefits of continued use of the current one. And considering that the price per year paid for the software’s running costs is less than a single student’s tuition bill, the cost is really very marginal. I’m sure much consideration of several reasons was put into it, but the bottom line is, Lehigh is indeed making the switch from the private Blackboard to the open-source Moodle Course Site, which definitely tells us something.

The changing face of the internet signals the direction that digital education may be heading. But on a larger scale, this is symbolic of the powerful influence technology has in defining our culture at large. Sure, we may not be heading to the fantasy of the previously imagined “virtual classroom”—certainly, at least, not in the near future—but the digital campus will continue to gain importance for us at the moment. In the 21st century, it’s evident that this campus has an unshakable place in the functionality of the university, and there will be no turning back from this current mindset.

It comes down to a question: what aspects of education do we prioritize? Do we value the conveniences that these technologies assist us with as the most important parts of learning? Truthfully, it’s the normative questions—not the hard technological data and efficiency statistics—that have always been the greatest influence on making decisions regarding implementation for anything. Obsolescence only occurs when we deem it acceptable enough and give it the OK to take off. As with almost any decision in life, it’s not the extreme yes or no, but a balance of elements on both ends. The road ahead is a gradual one, and as the internet reveals newer technologies, we’ll see them implemented over time into the framework of our educational system, fitted to have an efficient place in the modern campus. Whether it’s integration of new applications, the redesign of network interfaces, or the increase of centralization, technology is inevitably going to play larger roles in influencing the university of the future. Is the Virtual Learning Environment an unstoppable, growing monster? I think not. And certainly it is not the machine that seeks to rise up to conquer mankind. The humanistic element of education is far too important to be completely denied for the sake of convenience and efficiency. Maybe on some faraway day we’ll be happy in our headsets, learning calculus behind an avatar. But for now, the physical plane of existence will stay the primary location for our campus.

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