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Opinion: Distance learning is no substitute for real-world education

May 21, 1999
Web posted at: 9:50 a.m. EDT (1350 GMT)

by Dylan Tweney

education graphic

(IDG) -- The Internet is transforming education as profoundly as it is changing business. But if you listen too closely to "distance learning" advocates, you'll miss the real online-education revolution.

Ironically, although the Internet was born on university campuses, colleges were initially slow to take full advantage of Net technologies. Now, however, e-mail and Web technologies are increasingly integrated into daily life on campus.

So far, so good -- but merely using the Web to do research and using e-mail to file homework assignments is hardly taking advantage of the Internet's full potential. What's next?

Some people expect the Web to replace physical, brick-and-ivy schools, much as is giving physical bookstores a run for their money.

It's inefficient, so this argument goes, to have thousands of highly trained, reasonably well-paid professors teaching the exact same courses to students around the country. Why not take advantage of the Internet's ubiquity and impending broadband data channels to deliver courses online, educating thousands or millions of students at a time instead of mere dozens or hundreds?

These advocates for distance learning foresee a future in which lectures can be delivered via video-on-demand, discussion sections can be held through online chats (led by inexpensive free-lance teaching assistants), and grading can be done by software.
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This vision misses the point. Distance learning is a powerful tool, and will play an increasingly large role in adult, post-collegiate education. For corporate training, where the primary objective is the rapid, efficient acquisition of specific knowledge sets, distance learning will be a popular option.

But the efficient acquisition of knowledge is only a tiny fraction of what going to college means. Face-to-face interaction with professors, living away from one's parents, and socializing with a diverse group of people count for a lot in college education -- and these experiences can't be replicated online.

They can be facilitated through online technologies, however. In fact, two start-ups are creating "portal" technologies for colleges that will help tie together communities of students, faculty, and staff, while providing centralized access to course information, campus events, administrative tasks, and so forth.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Jenzabar, founded by Chai Ling, Tiananmen Square student protest leader, lets colleges create a central portal site for students so they can access personalized calendars, student directories, course information, and more, all from a Web interface.

And Salt Lake City's Campus Pipeline offers a portal system for faculty and students built on top of SCT's widely deployed university back-office software. Campus Pipeline includes Web-based e-mail and live chats in addition to administrative applications and course information.

Such education portals will, in time, help create stronger offline campus communities. And they address the real inefficiencies of the modern university, which are bureaucratic rather than pedagogic, thanks to administrative staffs that have become increasingly bloated during the past few decades. If technologies such as Jenzabar and Campus Pipeline can reduce administrative costs, colleges will be freer to devote more resources to their real mission: teaching.

Dylan Tweney is the content development manager for InfoWorld Electric. He has been writing about the Internet since 1993.

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