CYBERSHOCK: Virtual U. II

In November 1994 Kurt Dahl, a columnist for the Seattle Times, asked Lewis J. Perelman, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, whether education as we know it will be as extinct as the horse and buggy by the year 2020. Perelman, who had just published a controversial book called School's Out: Hyperlearning, the New Economy, and the End of Education, answered, "Yes, I'd expect that academia will be mostly in the dustbin of history by then."Whenever anyone talks about something going the way of the horse and buggy I try to pay attention. Several generations back, my paternal grandmother's family was in the horse-and- buggy business -- the brothers of that particular generation were partners in one of the largest carriage-building firms in New York. When the horseless carriage came along the brothers ignored it.One of their competitors, also run by brothers, decided to make the transition to motorized transportation. That other carriage company was called the Mack Brothers. Mack is now a household name, and its founders' descendants are almost certainly wealthy. The name of my grandmother's family, however, is now forgotten even by me, and many of their descendants toil in the fields of academia.That includes most of my immediate family. My father is a business professor and my mother is a medical-school researcher; one of my sisters is a school librarian and another is a doctor at a teaching hospital; and I, well, I may appear to be just another mild-mannered reporter by night, but by day I am Super Editor of a small college newspaper in Washington.So now it looks like my family's livelihood could be threatened once again, and the engines of our purported ruin are the combined forces of emerging computer and telecommunications technologies.Perhaps it's the family weakness, but I don't really hold with Perelman's predictions. There will certainly be huge upheavals in education. Computer-assisted learning will become far more common as states strapped for resources try to respond to an overwhelming increase in the number of would-be students and as private colleges go after the growing number of older adult learners who can't pack everything up in a trunk and trundle off to college for four years.We are witnessing a proliferation of educational formats that could benefit many students. In a previous column I laid out two scenarios -- one positive, one negative -- of how distance- learning via computer could work. A reader responded with a third scenario that was far better than anything I could have made up -- and hers was real. At Rochester Institute of Technology, Dr. Norman Coombs teaches an on-line history and ethnicity class. The students never meet, and they use anonymous handles, so conversation is frank and uninhibited. About half the students are deaf; the text-based format helps ensure their equal participation. Coombs, who was named the New York State Postsecondary Teacher of the Year, is blind and follows the on-line discussions by using speech-output technology.I'm excited to see the range of educational opportunities expand. Yes, I think some things will get lost in the translation, but as the people seeking an education in this county become increasingly diverse, so should their options.What's more, I don't believe the new modes of teaching and learning and the traditional modes are mutually exclusive. Virtual classrooms don't preclude actual ones. There will still be a place in 2020 for academic communities that rely on face-to-face interaction and teach the arcane liberal arts skills that don't have direct applications in high tech.What will happen, I believe, is that individual schools will be forced to identify and concentrate on whatever it is they do best. When someone in San Francisco can register at a school based in New York or New Delhi, offerings will become both more diverse and more specialized. Traditional colleges and universities offering a wide range of curricula will fill some of those niches, even if they won't dominate as they do today.So maybe it's too early to be thinking about fleeing the crumbling, ivy-covered walls of academia. You see, I enjoy working in close proximity with other people. I enjoy watching their eyes and hands when we talk. I enjoy fast and furious intellectual discussions unconstrained by time delays and bandwidth limitations. Mostly, I enjoy being on a campus full of people dedicated to learning.Perhaps I'm merely repeating the mistakes of my distant uncles, but I wonder sometimes whether they made a mistake or just an unprofitable choice.Maybe they didn't like the noise those newfangled engines made. Maybe they didn't like the stench. Maybe it didn't feel right to them to be holding a steering wheel instead of reins.Maybe they just liked horses.

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