An Inside Look At Dr. Scott Warnock's Online Classroom

By Maia Livengood

February 17, 2010 — Sitting down for an interview with Dr. Scott Warnock, I came mentally prepared for a heated discussion on distance learning. As a techno-illiterate, I've struggled to come to terms with the idea of teaching via the internet. I did my research: academic and professional background, personal blog vetting, and whatever information I could gather from his previous students. Armed with my points of contention, I was surprised to find within the first few minutes of our time together that this was much less like an interview than a conversation with an old friend. Though we'd just met, Warnock was refreshingly down-to-Earth and familiar. And as the director of the Freshman Writing Program and a major advocate for e-learning, he's ironically one of the most accessible professors I've met on campus. Although his winter term classes are all taught online, he still makes the daily trek to his office to provide student and faculty support. I quickly scratched the planned offensive, internally chastising myself for bringing a personal bias into work, and embraced the possibility of being enlightened.

Teaching Writing OnlineThough the Drexel community has been largely accepting and supportive of Warnock’s work, some in the higher education community have not been equally receptive. Since publishing Teaching Writing Online, Warnock has traveled extensively for speaking engagements at conventions and universities, and often encountered opposition to online education, not dissimilar from my own. He pinpoints the fallacy of most: making the case that online education is better or worse than traditional learning. More accurately, Warnock explained, online education simply uses different techniques to get the same desired result. The interactive nature of the online classroom creates an environment that offers a variety of new teaching tools. In fact, Warnock is co-founder of Subjective Metrics, Inc., a company created to develop Waypoint, a writing assessment and peer review software (the company was sold in spring 2009 and is now Waypoint Outcomes LLC). Tools like Waypoint serve to bridge the communication gap between students and professors, allowing for rapid, substantial feedback.

Most important in online education, though, is the shift to a student-centered classroom, in which the Socratic-based discussion allows for 100 percent participation. “In a typical classroom, anywhere around 40 percent participation would be considered a huge success. Now, here’s an opportunity for each voice to be heard. That’s pretty amazing,” said Warnock. And because each student is able to voice opinions, reflect, and comment on what others have written, it produces an intimacy between peers and professors, expanding the possibilities for mentorship and student development. Whereas in a classroom setting a professor might have a difficult time recalling which student showed an interest in a particular discussion, in online posts, the professor has access to that information at any time, and can pull resources that they feel might appeal to that student’s personal interests.

Dr. Scott Warnock
Dr. Scott Warnock

Furthermore, in addition to the writing course essay requirements, Drexel students in hybrid and online courses write a considerable amount in discussion posts. And because these posts are reviewed not only by professors, but by peers as well, it produces a well-regulated system that ensures a certain level of quality. In one of his recent blog posts, Warnock objects to the oft-held opinion that the quality of online writing will be less than that done for a traditional classroom. Because students hold each other accountable, individual students are much less likely to produce work that could embarrass them in front of their peers. And as reading is one of the best practices for improving writing skills, the vast amount required by this instructional system has led to noticeable improvements in writing ability, noted Warnock.

After substantiating the success of online writing programs, as he also does in Teaching Writing Online, Warnock discussed the larger-scheme positive impact of online education programs. Like most internet-based programs, a primary advantage of the online classroom is the ability to remove geographic education barriers. Most notably, when Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf region in August 2005, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation initiated an effort that later came to be known as the Sloan Semester, which enabled Katrina victims to enroll in e-learning programs at colleges and universities across the country. The Sloan Semester program was widely successful: more than 9,000 enrollments were processes in Sloan Semester courses. Warnock participated by opening his online writing classroom to a Sloan Semester student. Despite the differences between Drexel’s quarter system and the program’s semester system, Warnock proudly remarked that his Drexel students continued to provide the student with feedback well into their winter break.

While online education certainly has proven advantageous in a variety of areas, Warnock concedes that e-learning doesn’t suit all students, or professors, but it would be unwise to underestimate the power and reach of internet-based education. At the very least, online tools can be used to enhance traditional teaching; a theory supported by the success of Drexel’s hybrid classrooms. In particular, the College of Arts and Sciences is fortunate to have faculty like Warnock who fully utilize a wide-range of online instructional tools, such as faculty blogs or Second Life for academic tutorials.

A little begrudgingly, I find myself converted to a supporter of Warnock’s multi-dimensional approach to online education, and interested in what further applications will soon unfold, both at Drexel and in the world of education at large. Clearly, there is an extraordinary opportunity in leveraging technology to strengthen and improve our academic foundations.

Maia Livingood '12 is a Business Administration major with concentrations in Finance and Economics, as well as an English minor. Working for the College of Arts and Sciences, she has developed a strong interest in publication management and hopes to build upon the experience throughout her professional career.