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Academics rebel against an online future

June 12, 1998

by Todd Woody

Hell, no, we won't go -- online.

That could become the late 1990s campus protest slogan if a University of Washington revolt against what one critic calls "digital diploma mills" spreads. Nearly 900 professors at the Seattle school have signed a letter to Gov. Gary Locke decrying education delivered over the Internet by technology companies.

"While costly fantasies of this kind present a mouthwatering bonanza to software manufacturers and other corporate sponsors, what they bode for education is nothing short of disastrous," the academics write in the letter to be sent to Locke this week. "Education is not reducible to the downloading of information."

Such sentiment is not confined to the University of Washington's lakeside campus. Professors at Toronto's York University went on strike last year and won the right to keep their courses of฿ine. When the University of California at Los Angeles cut a deal with a private company to teach its extension courses online, some academics were unnerved.

"We're not unique. We just may be a little more mobilized at this particular moment," says University of Washington history professor James Gregory of the reaction.

A Coopers & Lybrand white paper released last month describes the Internet and new technology as creating a "massive, structural change in the higher education industry." The report likens the university system to the pre-HMO health-care industry and says it's ripe for rationalization: "Instructional software could easily substitute for campus-based instruction, or at least be a substantial part of the delivery system."

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For college administrators faced with a wave of so-called "echo boomers" who will enter their institutions over the next 20 years, online education promises to cut costs for "bricks and mortar" and tenured teachers. And it could be a gold mine for educational software and Internet companies.

One recent entry into the education market is Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, whose Washington-based APEX offers advanced-placement college courses to high school students over the Internet.

The Coopers & Lybrand report has caught the attention of administrators and academics. Gov. Locke, a Democrat, established the 2020 Commission because he wanted the group to explore how new technologies might "alter our very definition of what constitutes a college education."

The commission will issue a report in September. But its emphasis on technology companies and "distance learning" prompted the Washington professors to sign the letter to Locke.

Galya Diment, head of the University of Washington chapter of the American Association of University Professors, says the petition signers are not luddites. "It's not the fear of technology per se. It's the fear of the scope. We are concerned about the corporatization of campuses," Diment says.

While administrators may view technology as a panacea for budgetary problems, history professor Gregory says policymakers and tech companies could be misjudging the ultimate arbiters of education - students.

"I doubt that many 19- and 20-year-olds are going to sit at their kitchen tables and download courses," he says. A university education, he adds, is more than taking courses; it's the social experience of encountering new ideas and new people. "You can't do that on the Internet, and we would be cheating a generation if we tried to substitute some type of techno education for a campus education."

Stan Washburn, the 2020 Commission coordinator, doesn't think the Internet will replace the traditional university campus in Washington, but he believes change is inevitable: "You can't stop the Internet, right? This is a growth industry. The issue is how do we meet the demand [for education] rather than deny it. Technology is one way, not the only way."

In fact, virtual universities are a reality in other states. Californians can log on to the Web and take classes from 108 schools. They even can vote for a school mascot for California Virtual University. Later this summer, Western Governors University will accept students at its "campus" on the Web. WGU is a collaboration between 18 states and corporate sponsors like AT&T and Apple, which can become "content providers" at the school.

As other states move toward online education, what York University professor David Noble calls the clash between "the classroom and boardroom" is likely to intensify.


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