Thursday, November 08, 2007

Interview with Burks Oakley (Life in the E-Learning Organization Series)

This week's interview is with Burks Oakley, trailblazer in online learning programs, who has received numerous awards and accolades, including ones received from the Sloan Consortium. This interview is a part of Life in the E-Learning Organization, a series of interviews with e-learning and distance professionals.

What is your name, and what is your involvement with e-learning?

My name is Burks Oakley. I have been involved in the e-learning field since the late 1980’s. I currently am a Visiting Research Professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and in this capacity, I teach an online class and I am involved in research about online education. I also work as a consultant in the field of online learning, and give a number of faculty development presentations and workshops on college campuses throughout the country. I’m technically a Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is a nice way of saying that I am a retired engineering professor.

How did you get interested in distance education?

I actually was an award-winning classroom teacher in a former life (a long time ago). When students began to have access to PC’s in the late 1980’s, I developed some stand-alone software to help improve student learning in my on-campus class on electric circuit analysis (I worked as an electrical engineering professor at that time). The success of this software led me to develop a networked version, where the students could submit homework over the Internet (using FTP) and get instant feedback on how well they understood the concepts. In the Spring 1994 semester, I added asynchronous computer conferencing to this, so that students could contact TA’s or other students online and ask questions if they were having difficulties. All of this experience helped land me a position in the office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Illinois, and when the Vice President started a university-wide initiative in the area of online education (what you are calling distance education), she asked me to direct it. And I worked as the Director of the University of Illinois Online initiative for the next ten years, assisting the three campuses of the University of Illinois (Chicago, Springfield, Urbana-Champaign) develop their online programs. So you can see that I sort of got into this field in a round-about manner.

What is your favorite new trend in distance education?

Without a doubt, my favorite new trend is Web 2.0 and all of the Web 2.0 technologies that we can use to improve student learning. For example, I have my students post their introductions in a class wiki, I have asked them each to start a blog where they can reflect on their learning, and I produce weekly podcasts for the class, in which I summarize our discussions and highlight important points.

What is your favorite technology?

Wow, that is a tough question. Do I have to pick a favorite? I assume that you mean among all of the many technologies that are used in the e-learning field. I’ll re-phrase your question – what is the one Internet technology I wouldn’t want to do without? OK, Susan, if that is what you want to know, my answer would have to be Google. I use Google multiple times each day – and more and more, it isn’t just the search feature of Google, but it is the personalized Google page at iGoogle, having my calendar in Google Calendar, blogging using Blogger, creating web pages with Google Page Creator, collaboratively authoring documents in Google Documents, reading and sending e-mail using my Gmail account – well, I could go on and on. Why didn’t I buy Google stock when it was only $100 per share?!!!!!!

What kinds of instructional materials do you use in elearning?

I guess that I am fairly traditional here. I use webpages for handouts (and I still author them in Netscape Composer, version 4.8 from 2002), PDF files (see more below – a great replacement for textbooks), and I use Blackboard for the weekly discussions in my online class. As I just mentioned, I also am podcasting for my online class, and I use a blog to distribute the RSS feed for this podcast series. Oh, I guess I also produce some short PowerPoint presentations with audio, and I use Impatica for this purpose. One other thing that I do in my online class that is somewhat unique – I attach a thumbnail photo to each and every one of my postings in Blackboard, so that the students see me as a “real” person, rather than an anonymous instructor in cyberspace. I have a small digital camera, and take photos of myself everywhere – at a conference in Florida, on the golf course, in my home office, and so on. So they get to see me in my everyday life, which I think helps build our learning community, something that is so very important in any online class.

How do you use textbooks in e-learning?

Susan – I actually don’t use any texts in the online classes that I have taught. For example, this semester I am teaching a course called “Internet and American Life”. In this class, we are exploring the many ways that the Internet is impacting our lives in the United States today, and the laws and public policies that are related to the use of the Internet. The course is based primarily on publications from the Pew Internet and American Life Project (see: And we supplement this material with current articles from various online sources – ranging from the NY Times and the Washington Post to blogs written by Internet experts. The nice thing about this course is that it is so relevant to the lives of the students – so we use the principles of social constructivism – and the students do a lot of searching on their own to find relevant articles.

What is your favorite quote? Or, what book that caught your eye recently?

One of my favorite quotes is from Larry Ecton, of Summit Electric Supply in Albuquerque, NM. He said “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” For more of my favorite quotes, visit my website at:

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