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Ivy covered bits?

by Scott Bradner

It seems that there will soon be no need for the hallowed halls of academe. The New York Times reported in a special Education Life supplement in the April 4th issue that at least one management guru (Peter Drucker) predicts that "30 years from now, the big university campuses will be relics." Modern technology, particularly the Internet, will cause such a shift to distance learning that there will be nobody needed to cut the grass for commencement. I could not tell from the article how much the author accepted this scenario but I have quite a hard time with it.

Distance education is far from new. There have been correspondence schools since who knows when and educational TV stations have been broadcasting lectures for decades. But the idea is certainly now in vogue, with the Internet seen as the grand facilitator. Just about every university is trying to figure out what to do in this area, at minimum as a protective measure -- to see what effect the distance learning initiatives of others will have on them. There are some quite large efforts underway with the Western Governor's University, a consortium of 17 states plus Guam, and The Open University, a 29 year old project of the BBC, being the largest.

But if one steps back a bit, away from the enchantment with the technology, the picture gets a bit harder to predict. It seems clear that some types of learning are very well suited to distance learning. Continuing education for doctors and dentists, which is required in many states, and special classes that vendors sometimes put on to teach people to use their products, seem to be ideal. Students can take them when they want to and only take the ones they need, and do so without any travel requirement.

On the other hand, I find it very hard to see that 4 years of undergraduate education obtained while sitting in front of a PC in your home can in any way substitute for the social and intellectual interaction of the same 4 years on a college campus dealing with classmates and professors.

But there is another whole area of issues that will make it very hard for most of today's universities to jump into the distance learning business. For example, figuring out ways of providing incentives for professors to put together the on-line lessons, and working out the intellectual property rights for all the materials used in the classroom will take years at least.

So I'm not worried that Harvard will fade away any time soon (even though my Harvard Extension School class is on the 'Net.)

disclaimer: Brand name-wise, Harvard might have a head start in this area but the above are my own musings.