It was the sort of discussion that happens hundreds of times a day in America's college classrooms — an English professor and her students grappled with Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem, "To a Skylark," trying to pry meaning from words written nearly two centuries ago.
This conversation, though, had a decidedly 21st-century twist. It was conducted in cyberspace, with the professor, Sara Cordell of the University of Illinois at Springfield, speaking over a chat room audio feed, and the students typing their impressions into a text box.
While the session lacked the intimacy of a face-to-face exchange, it nonetheless seemed to produce the illumination Cordell was after. As it ended, having uncovered the poem's themes of joy, loss and the limits of human existence, one student wrote, "I see so much more than before."
"I think students learn a lot more in my field online," Cordell said. "They have to take a lot more responsibility for their learning. They can't just sit there and stare at me and pretend that literature is a spectator sport."
Virtual education at the college level has exploded over the last decade, with one survey finding that about a third of all students today take at least one class online. The humanities, though, remain a relative rarity in the digital world.
The story was featured by the Chicago Tribune on April 29, 2013.
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