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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University May 9, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 33
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Classroom

I like to think of myself as being up-to-date with the latest trends. Unfortunately, much of the evidence points to the contrary. For example, I have been fond of saying that online tools for education have a role but ultimately can't compete with the type of interactive classroom instruction that research universities like Johns Hopkins provide.

The great thing about experiments, a professor of mine once told me, "is that they always work."

While I was sleeping, various Hopkins divisions have been experimenting with online courses. The results, I have just learned, show that once again I am far behind the times. The experiment worked — it just didn't work the way I had expected it would.

Online courses specifically tailored for distance education have been around for a number of years. And the use of online or interactive Internet tools for so-called asynchronous learning has been gaining in recent years. The Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins has been a pioneer in developing distance education courses. For a number of years it has been possible to obtain a master of public health degree from the Bloomberg School as a part-time student enrolling via online courses. There is a three-month residency requirement during which M.P.H. candidates must be in Baltimore for study, but for the rest of the time students can take courses from their home or office in Boston, Bangladesh or beyond.

Good enough, I thought. In this case, the use of the Internet enables people who would not otherwise be able to obtain their M.P.H. by virtue of geographic separation to do so rather conveniently. But, in a recent conversation with Dr. Al Sommer, the dean of the Bloomberg School, I found out something truly extraordinary. It seems that once the online courses had been developed, they began to be used not only by the part-time M.P.H. students in Botswana but by the full-time students in Baltimore. Fully half the online courses taken in the Bloomberg School are taken by full-time students matriculating in Baltimore. Wow! I wondered why that might be.

Dr. Sommer told me that one of the reasons was simple convenience. Another was scheduling. If a student had a scheduling conflict with a classroom course, she or he could enroll via the Internet offering. But that was not all.

Other interesting developments have followed the creation of an online M.P.H. curriculum. First, pedagogy in the classroom has improved. Evidently, in order to develop an online course, you must invest more time and creativity in developing pedagogical tools to facilitate asynchronous (non-real time, noninteractive) learning. Some of these tools enhance the classroom courses taught synchronously as well. The result is that the quality of instruction rises in the classroom as well as on the Internet. The two feed each other symbiotically.

In addition, so many full-time students had taken the Internet-based courses that when they enrolled in a classroom course, if the professor didn't have Internet-enabled course supplements, they complained vociferously. The result: Within a year, almost all of the Bloomberg School's classroom-based courses had developed Internet supplements.

The Bloomberg School has joined MIT in putting its public health courses online in a free shareware-based Web site ( You can access a number of online courses for free, without credit and without the benefit of an instructor. It is likely that many educators are going to post their Web-based courses there, facilitating broader access and also potentially freeing faculty from having to prepare specific course programs (which others will have already done), thereby freeing them to focus on the interactive parts of education.

That interaction might take place in multiple ways: face to face in small groups; remotely via video links over the Internet; or asynchronously, via e-mail between teacher and student. Burks Oakley, a professor of engineering at the University of Illinois, has been one of the pioneers in asynchronous learning, and if you take a look at the online Web site at the University of Illinois (, you will see the richness of content and pedagogical tools being developed.

Asynchronous learning has had the most application to science and engineering courses, and to subjects related to professional degrees such as business or public health. But it is increasingly being used in the more broadly based disciplines, such as philosophy and ethics, where one would suppose it difficult to employ this less interactive learning form. If present trends continue, it may turn out that asynchronous learning is one of the most important tools yet discovered to enhance, but not replace, the concept of the Johns Hopkins "hand-tooled education."

I had this dream: While walking to a classroom at Johns Hopkins, I suddenly realized it was gone. Funny thing; I woke up to discover it wasn't a dream at all.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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