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Editor’s Note: Katrina Meyer confronts us with serious questions about differences between face-to-face and online communications. The logistical advantages of online may be offset by unintended consequences that affect reading habits, analytical skills, vocabulary, how we communicate, and what is learned. Many issues are opened for discussion and provide significant questions for further study.

Exploring the Potential for Unintended Consequences in Online Learning

Katrina A. Meyer


The literature is rife with predictions about the potential impact of online learning. What do we know about predicting unintended consequences that might result from using the Internet for educational purposes? This paper reviews several conceptual frameworks that guide those who believe that technology influences who-we-are as humans and what we can become. It then reviews various predictions of unintended consequences that could result from using the Internet for students and their learning, language acquisition and emotional health, their sense of community, control, and self. Another section discusses predictions for the impact of the Internet and online learning on higher education institutions. Several lines of research are described that could provide important “canaries” to warn us of unintended consequences prior to their becoming a reality and a danger.


Predictions about the future of higher education run the gamut from disaster to transformation. At one end, Peter Drucker (in Lenzer & Johnson, 1997) wrote that “thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive.” At the other extreme are those who declare that technology “changes everything” (Barone & Hagner, 2001; Hughes, 2001). What does such a divergence of opinion tell us? Surely, there seems to be something uniquely human about making predictions, projecting oneself into a dimly seen future. And the divergence of opinions about that future is also the norm, because people have predicted doom as well as transformation for such innovations as electricity, trains, and television. So it should not surprise us if the predictions about the future of online learning in higher education would be similarly diverse.

One purpose for predictions is to warn of dangers and prepare for anticipated changes. Humans seem happier if they think they know what is coming in the future, even if expectations turn out not to be so. The need to predict is also grounded in knowledge that actions often lead to consequences that were not intended. These unintended consequences litter histories with outcomes that no one wanted or expected, but happened as a result of purposeful action. Boudon (1977) called these “perverse effects,” which include effects that are negative or positive but which were unintended by the original actors. Further action may neutralize one perverse effect but also eliminate desirable effects as well as cause new perverse effects. The point is that while perverse effects happen even though they are unintended, such consequences can and should be anticipated or foreseen if time and attention are paid. In fact, Karl Popper once claimed that the “main task of the theoretical human sciences . . . consists in identifying the non-intentional social repercussions of intentional human actions” (Boudon, 1977, p. 1).

An Approach

The goal of this work is to identify consequences of the movement toward online learning, but to go beyond facile fears or boisterous boosterism to an evaluation of emerging research results or theoretical propositions. It will ask questions about what these results may mean for higher education and student learning. If this work has value, higher education may be able to craft its own “canary in the mines,” which refers to the canaries miners would take into the shafts to warn them of the presence of poisonous gases and alert them to exit before their own lives were in danger. Higher education’s canaries could include measures devised to provide early detection of unwanted consequences as well as research programs that will identify positive consequences that can be nursed and expanded.

The issue is not whether online learning is a good idea or not; it is here and there is every indication that it provides worthwhile benefits and opportunities for learning. The issue is whether thoughtful individuals can project beyond the obvious changes it brings to those secondary or even tertiary changes that might occur as a result of its use. It may be that these unintended consequences are both positive and negative. And the positive gains may certainly outweigh the negative. In either case, it would be wise to find ways to identify, eliminate, or mitigate the negatives to ensure that the miners survive. But the first step is finding the right canary.


Two definitions will provide a direction for this work. First, “unintended consequences” may be either positive or negative, although the popular usage tends to focus on negative or “perverse” effects. The crucial characteristic of the consequence is its unanticipated or unintended quality. Second, “online learning” will be used to mean uses of the Internet or the web to deliver or enhance learning, be it entirely at a distance or partially on campus.

Conceptual Framework

Six important concepts ground this work. First, the Internet has been called a “disruptive innovation” (Christenson, 1997; Duin et al., 2001; Meyer, 2005), a technology that has already changed definitions, roles, and even institutions. And because online learning uses the Internet, it may be implicated in the same types of disruptions attributed to the Internet (see Archer, Garrison & Anderson, 1999). What makes the Internet or online learning “disruptive?” It is disruptive because former rules or skills may not be helpful in managing the innovation and may even result in counterintuitive outcomes. When former assumptions or rules do not work as intended, the result could well be an unintended consequence.

Second, Tenner (1996) calls an unintended consequence a “revenge effect,” which is particularly endemic to technologies. This is because complex systems cannot be completely mapped and it is impossible to test all possible occurrences (p. 16). Flaws will occur. Tenner also proposes that technology alone “usually doesn’t produce a revenge effect. Only when we anchor it in laws, regulations, customs, and habits” (p. 9) is a revenge effect likely to occur. From Tenner (1996), we can know that complex systems and the application of inappropriate regulations or practices to technologies may be more likely to lead to unintended consequences.

Third, a related point about complexity has been made by Burbules and Callister (2000), but it focuses on the point-of-view of the evaluator. In an assessment of means and ends and what is good and bad, the “inseparability and interdependence of many consequences should begin to shake the faith that such determinations can be so readily made . . . the very same effects can be regarded as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ depending on other considerations, or when evaluated by different people” (p. 12). In other words, complex systems are both difficult to unravel but even more difficult to evaluate consistently. This is a cautionary note to any analysis of unintended consequences, because judgments about the value and impact of the consequence can be inconsistent and contentious.

Fourth, Postman (1993), never a fan of technology, expressed a fear that people will become “tools of our tools” (p. 3). In this view, which owes much to Marshall McLuhan, he worries that an important unintended consequence may be how technology changes our selves and our relationship to our creations. In this sense, humans are products of media (Levinson, 2001, p. 183). Gurak (2001) goes further: “How we view the world and how we live in it are being shaped by the features of these new technologies” (p. 10). However, it is also important to realize that technology is programmable and malleable: “We build our biases into technology, and we bring our social conditions into online space” (Gurak, 2001, p. 64). In other words, what is attributable to the tool or to the software built into the tool may be difficult, but necessary, to unravel.

Fifth, what makes unintended consequences of technology frightening to some is that we are blind to its effects (Levinson, 2001). Something is happening to us and our relationship to technology without our knowledge or approval; some people feel like victims, helpless to control changes they can’t identify. This is one of the reasons why work on unintended consequences is important, to allay fears and to help individuals feel they have control over their tools.

Sixth, let us finish on a more positive note. “New tools cause people to imagine new purposes” and change “people’s understanding of what they can do, what they want to do, what they think they need to do” (Burbules & Callister, 2000, p. 10, 13). New tools allow us to imagine new forms of success and new definitions for success as well. Thus, it is legitimate to look for positive unintended consequences to online learning, especially those that free individuals from the past and that allow new, never-before-imagined futures to become possible.

The sections that follow will explore possible unintended consequences from the use of online learning on students and their learning, and on higher education generally. (Additional topics that are not included in this paper could address consequences for faculty, the impact on student services and administrative functions, or society as a whole). It is important to consider these projections to be tentative and legitimate only to the extent that they generate a need to design an appropriate canary to warn us if danger is nearby. In fact, as further research is done, these projections ought to be reevaluated and modified, made less urgent or more so. This is clearly a work in progress, one that will require additional work before we can sleep soundly that possible negative consequences are adequately and fairly identified and all canaries are in their appropriate places.

Effects on Students and Learning

Writing, Reading, Literature and Language

Much has already been written about the effects of the Internet on students’ writing and reading skills. With email, chat rooms, discussion threads, and web authoring, students are writing a great deal and some research supports that this experience is improving their writing. That in itself may be thought a good outcome, but what is not clear is whether the writing done on or for the web is different in some fashion. For example, Weinberger (2002) has said that email is both like mail (it is typed, then sent) and like a conversation (p. 13). Perhaps online learning’s uses of writing are more like a conversation than a sustained argument or college paper. In that case, there is a straightforward solution. College courses offered online may need to make expository writing a requirement of the course and provide instruction on this type of writing so that college students can write both for the chat room and the term paper. In other words, perhaps the impact online learning will have on students’ writing skills has more to do with how the course and learning objectives are designed than the web in and of itself.

Birkerts (1994) has argued passionately that reading is in danger as a result of the ascendance of the web. Technology will “render the book antiquated” (p. 17) and students already cannot read dense prose, archaic diction, allusions, irony, or “pretentious” vocabulary (p. 19). This is a concern because how we receive information “bears vitally on the ways we experience and interpret reality” (p. 72). Thus, the issue is not only reading per se, but how such a loss might affect college students’ ability to understand reality. These are serious charges and worthy of exploration and more formal research and study.

The more pertinent issues for online learning is whether reading online is different and how. Perhaps hypertext (the linking of information on one web page to another) and hypermedia (adding sound and visuals to online text) do make the reading experience different. Perhaps hyperlinks make nonlinear and nonsequential thinking more easy to do. Perhaps the lack of permanence of online text creates a different experience than would a paper text; perhaps a text that moves as you scroll is different than text that stays put on a page while your eyes move; perhaps “deep reading” (another Birkerts term) isn’t possible or perhaps it is. Perhaps the word on a page is actual and permanent and fixed and perhaps the word on a screen is provisional and floating (Birkerts, 1994, p. 155-157), and perhaps this makes a difference to students’ perceptions of the world. These are good examples of Kipling’s “technology in repose” (in Postman, 1993, p. 138), which effects changes without our awareness. In any case, these are good questions to resolve and canaries are needed to alert us if reading is becoming different or more nonlinear and what impact these changes have on students.

There is more about the evolving nature of text that is intriguing. Lanham (2001) has written about the changing nature of text online, how it is increasingly multimodal (textual and aural and graphic) and moves text into a three-dimensional world where text can fade or move. He claims that digital text puts text back into space and time (p. 33), increasing the need for students to develop a spatial awareness. How do these different methods of presenting text (e.g., the web versus paper) affect the reader and the reader’s understanding of what has been read?

Birkerts (1994) has argued that technology may spell the end of reading, literature, and language use He is worried about losing an elite level of reading, books, and language, which might create a larger rift – a language and education rift – between individuals whose reading and language use are more mundane and those whose declining numbers spell the end of a particular type of literature. This rift – if caused by online learning – may have class implications and ought to be seriously evaluated.

So we find several writers who disagree on the impact of online learning on students writing, reading, and language use. This is an area that needs research to evaluate these predictions. Is there evidence that experiences change when we go online and that such changes impact students in some fundamental way? Possible canaries might include assessments of how reading text online changes students, their reading, and/or their comprehension, or whether and to what extent reading text online changes the readers’ perception of reality.

Emotions and Connections

Locke (1998) also focused on a perceived loss of emotion in the online world. Talking is the sharing of personal information, the person’s character, personality, emotionality, and attitudes (p. 60), but email provides no way to show how we feel, increases ambiguity, and doesn’t allow us to intimately engage in friendship (p. 163-169). Talking alters mood and provides cathartic relief, which may occur online or not. Birkerts (1994) adds that while the screen is ideal for relaying data, it is not a good avenue for subjectivity or art, and in fact is “antithetical to inwardness” (p. 193). These are serious charges and they could be evaluated by assessing regular online learners’ ability to share and comprehend one’s own and other’s emotions as well as whether online “talking” had the same or different effects on their moods. But perhaps there is a mitigating factor for most students, since the majority will have other friends and emotional ties with friends and family members that are conducted face-to-face. In other words, their online relationships in a course or program may be a small percentage of their emotional lives. In any case, it is a charge worth investigating.

Research on “social presence” in online courses captures the ability of online learners to enhance “closeness” to each other and to use the technology to increase personal connections (see Rourke & Anderson, 2002; Rourke, Anderson, Garrison & Archer, 1999). This presence may be the same or different than that gained in face-to-face interactions, which may have its own implications for students’ ability to exchange emotions by talking online and/or in other conversations.

The development of community is another concern. Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers (1998) stress that community requires the co-evolution of the self and other, where boundaries between persons comprise a meeting place and not a wall, a place to exchange and grow. They note that the web can be used to create stronger boundaries between persons or forge growth across individual boundaries and this certainly ought to be tested. Therefore, the role of online learning would be to support the latter use and not the former, but this may be a function of instructional design rather than a necessary consequence of using the web to deliver or enhance a class. Palloff and Pratt (1999) would certainly argue that community is achievable in online courses, but it is not clear if it is the same as face-to-face versions of community or if it has different characteristics. And yet communicating one’s essence is key to providing others’ with a sense of who is on the other end of an online conversation, and this may be tied more to writing skill than the medium. In any case, as was noted earlier, “social presence” is a hot topic among those who evaluate online discussions, and it is tied to the personal side of talking valued by Locke (1998). Social presence may turn out to be talking’s best online analogue.

Lastly, O’Donnell (1998) has pointed out that communication skills are essential for student learning, because it is through communication that students create truth collectively (p. 149). Whether online forms of communication – be they email, chats, or threaded discussions – are effective at fueling this communication and giving rise to joint construction, testing, and evaluation of truths is a question well worth asking. Certainly, enough research has been done to support that learning does occur online, but the question should be more narrowly cast and focused on how and to what extent online communication tools actually contribute to learning. An appropriate canary might entail the design of measures or assessments that regularly indicate the level or kind of community online students achieve.

Control and Self

There are several ways that control may be pertinent as a consequence of learning online. First, Turkle suggested that computers could offer companionship “without the mutuality and complexity of a human relationship” (in Locke, 1998, p. 181) because, in part, the individual was in control of the relationship: he or she could log off, close the screen, and delete the message. The gain in control was attractive to many individuals but might not portend well for forging deeper relationships. Second, Postman (1993) voiced a fear that has been common among technophobes that humans will become “tools of our tools” (p. 3). In this view, control is ceded away from the individual, and the usual relationship between tool and tool user is subtly reversed. If this were a true consequence of online learning, it would be serious indeed and is worthy of a flock of canaries.

The issue of control may be related to the phenomenon of individuals who present themselves as someone other than who they are in chat rooms. In addition to the masks people can wear in online settings, this falsity is compounded by our inability to discern truth from lies on the web (Locke, 1998). And yet it is common for individuals to try on different selves in new settings or fantasize about new lives or present themselves as happier or wealthier than they truly are. And frankly, false information has been around for a while, too. We need to know if these instances of falsity on the web are different in degree and/or kind from the past or whether online learners are more (or less) prone to creating a false self in an online educational setting.

Several writers are concerned about the effects of the online experience on the emerging self of youngsters or more impressionable college students. Weinberger (2002) claims that the web is a new world and will “create new people” (p. 9). He then refers to two research studies that arrive at diametrically opposed conclusions: that the web caused less social engagement AND more contact with others (p. 10-11). In other words, we need canaries that can help us identify and study these “new people,” or whether indeed they are new people at all.

Birkerts (1994) has several consequences for the self that worry him. Will the steady user of online learning be changed by its altered relationship to time, space, and others (p. 31)? Will the way they receive information change the way they experience and interpret reality (p. 72)? Will they know more bits of information but not with depth or context (p. 72)? Will they be able to reflect and understand themselves and their worlds because they read online versus from a book (p. 83)? Will the way they think be different because the order of print was linear and the order of the web page is visual, impressionistic, rapid, and associative (p. 122)? These are serious concerns, and online learning may need to address them with well-designed and long-term studies.

This issue is not solely a concern that the next generation will be different from our own. Given your personal values, such difference may be a sign of progress or degeneration. The real issue is whether these changes are being wrought by students’ involvement with online learning or not. It may be that online courses are only a small part of students’ web-influenced lives. Or these courses may be construed as only a tool to get an education and the content of the education plays the greater role in forming the students’ self than the means of receiving it. Time, and canaries, may tell.

Effects on Institutions

It is unclear when reading the prophets of change for higher education whether the change is the result of online learning or a variety of forces. These forces are often entangled, and thus difficult to unravel. Yet the Internet and online learning are credited with causing some of the prophesied changes, so they will be included in this discussion. Typical of such statements is Barone and Hagner’s (2001) “information technology changes the very nature of what we do” (p. xi), including concepts, definitions, roles, and structures. The following material on consequences is grouped into three large categories focusing on major conceptual shifts and changes in the structure of higher education.

Among the conceptual issues are three possible but important shifts. The first of these shifts is the loss among higher education institutions of the knowledge of what business they are in. O’Donnell (1998) argues that how a business defines itself will constrain the future of that business; he uses the well-known example of the railroads, which saw their business as railroads rather than transportation. He thinks that higher education operates as if it were in the “fifty-minute lecture business” (p. 148). Such assumptions about a core business are often unspoken and unexamined. Feenberg (2002) makes a similar point about online learning: is its business to achieve greater efficiencies or greater freedom for students? Will higher education someday be in the “student learning business” (be it online or on campus) and what types of changes would result from such a designation?

A second shift results from the institution’s relationship to what the Internet does best: that is, to provide data. Postman (1993) captured this idea thus: “to a man with a computer, everything looks like data” (p. 14). Indeed, the need for more information and data is perhaps both a cause and result of the Internet. And yet, Postman comments that there are “few political, social, and especially personal problems that arise because of insufficient information” (p. 60). This does not devalue the usefulness of information for making better-informed decisions, but it does put into perspective the role of information while making serious decisions that depend on personal values or social ethics. In fact, the larger problem of having so much information is that it is disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose (Postman, 1993, p. 70). We don’t discover truth anymore; we manage information. This explosion has overwhelmed traditional gatekeepers of information like universities, who evaluated and passed on some information but not others. This shift in function could change how society values the university.

The larger problem this issue causes for higher education is whether it is in the information transfer business – which the Internet can also do well and more cheaply – or whether it will focus on developing context, depth, and wisdom or the business of student learning. Wisdom, for Birkerts, “has nothing to do with the gathering or organizing of facts . . . wisdom is a seeing through facts, a penetration to the underlying law and patterns” (p. 75). If online learning subscribes to the business of information transfer, then it could be eliminated by its competition; if it is in the business of building wisdom, it has a nobler aim and is more closely aligned with the traditional role of higher education. Which model online learning subscribes to will be influenced by the predominant model of the institution that offers it, the philosophy of its faculty, and the demands of students. In any case, the consequences of which model is chosen will not only affect online learning, but it could affect online learning’s impact on students.

The third major shift is the transformation of pedagogy made possible by the web. Privateer (1999) complained that many uses made of technology duplicate an old model of pedagogy that retains elements of hierarchy, efficiency, mass production, faculty control, an information transfer model of education, and the “reproductive theory of knowledge” (p. 5). For example, faculty lectures are videostreamed or given over interactive video and the one-to-many broadcast model of faculty dictating content to students is retained. This is not real change. What is needed is a new pedagogy that uses technology to stimulate intelligent problem-solving among students. If online learning replicates an older pedagogy, perhaps the consequences for student learning will be more of the same. If it breaks free and develops new pedagogies, perhaps students will have a better – or different -- education. In any case, this shift (or lack thereof) deserves a canary.

Lastly, what is happening to higher education organizations more generally? Some emerging organizational structures are being implemented in new virtual universities, including distributed organizations, network organizations, and hybrid organizations (Carchidi & Peterson, 2000; Hanna, 1998). In fact, if there is guidance for higher education from the e-business realm, Kanter (2001) has noted that these emerging organizations focus on creative destruction, emergent strategies “made up as you go along” (p. 7), and they require a tolerance for paradox such as the pursuit of centralization and decentralization at the same time. These organizations need to “manage complexity” (Suter, 2001, p. 25), working with it and eschewing attempts to control or eliminate it. Organizations need to be able to manage change as well, both living within a culture of change, and successfully adopting changes that support the institution’s business and avoiding changes that do not. Higher education institutions are likely evolving their own e-culture to survive in a future where online learning is ubiquitous. Canaries might be needed to identify these new structures and evaluate their effects on higher education.

The final issue is one of the larger environment for higher education, an environment that has become increasingly fraught with competition, including new types of competitors as well as traditional competitors with more online learning offerings (Katz, 1999). Does this competition mean that higher education’s monopoly is truly broken or only bent? Will it mean that residential colleges decrease in size or number or that there will be an increase in the variety of institutions and learning opportunities? Will competition result in improved performance and better offerings or poorer performance? Meyer (2004) has argued that the answer to that question is complicated by individual attitudes and responses to competition and change, but it is an important question to ask an institution. Will competition bring out the institution’s best or worst? Will it affect peripheral services (such as continuing education) but not its core, or will it affect only institutions that are less-selective or specialize in convenience services (Marchese, 1998)? From the point-of-view of identifying and understanding unintended consequences, it will be important to ask what other changes might logically happen as a result of such transformations. The issue is not whether we may personally like the changes or not, but whether the changes are happening as predicted and what the consequence of such changes may be.


There are more questions than answers in the above material, but that is perhaps a good sign, because the questions are being asked in advance of the consequences. Therefore, there is time to craft some very useful canaries to put in place to help us identify what is happening as a result of the influx of online learning and its technological partners, the Internet and information technology.

This is largely a hopeful situation. First of all, we can learn from our failures as Tenner (1996) has stressed, and learn from the consequences of our choices. As Gurak (2001) has suggested, the Internet is the product of certain design choices and choices made about how to use it. What may seem “given” in the current day was once a choice, and it is helpful to remember the importance of choices as we evaluate online learning and learn how to better project consequences.

Second, McLuhan proposed that it is the way a thing is used that defines what the thing really is (in Locke, 1998, p. 55), and that is especially true of the Internet, which is used by predators looking for victims and individuals researching the latest medical information to assess different treatment options. It is also true for online learning, which may be used to duplicate a mundane educational model of information transfer or an exciting model that stresses students’ collective construction of knowledge as they interact with other students, the content, and faculty. In other words, consequences for using online learning may derive as much or more from its context, the intent of the user as well as the designer, and the values of student, faculty, and educational system.

And third, human agency cannot be ignored. We are not passive and weak or powerless and incapacitated when presented with changes wrought by technology. Our responses to it are under our control and are as creative as we choose to make them.

These are positive reasons to believe the future of online learning could bring better results than the pessimists suppose. Such a positive future may be limited only by our ability to choose wisely. Of course, our choices can go inadvertently awry, but we can recover quickly once we are in the habit of anticipating unintended consequences and once we have our canaries in the appropriate places.


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About the Author

Katrina A. Meyer is Associate Professor, Higher and Adult Education at The University of Memphis, 308 Browning Hall, Memphis, TN 38152-3340.

Phone: (901) 678-2466. Email:

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