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As 'Distance Learning' Takes Off, US Lags Behind

Developing countries in South America, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, unburdened by costly campuses or tenured faculty and bureaucracies, are exploiting the Internet and other new technologies to educate people once excluded from learning modern skills.

Mexico, for example, is making information technology and education a prime directive. Its Tecnolgico de Monterrey, a 26-campus consortium, has a mission to bring distance learning to everyone willing to participate. The newest campus is a fully functional virtual university serving students throughout Mexico. Young people in even the most remote areas use subsidized computers and modems to get the kind of education their parents never could have imagined.

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On American campuses, on the other hand, many educators are hesitant to embrace the new education technology. These administrators conduct endless rounds of research and discussion on how to best use the Internet and similar tools, fretting as the technology reinvents itself almost daily.

This indecision may allow other countries to get a head start on perfecting education through computers. In a way, distance-learning methods are like different kinds of cars. In the 1970s, while Detroit's Big Three failed to look forward, the Japanese auto industry began meeting the needs of consumers. Japan captured significant market share by selling cars people wanted. It's taken nearly 20 years for US automakers to recover.

Like any other notion causing upheaval and change, there is a lot about using distance technology that unhinges academics. Obstructionists and naysayers point to the diminished role of faculty and the need for good, old-fashioned face-to-face learning. There is concern that control is being lost. There is also confusion about what distance learning really is.

IN its simplest form, distance learning may be a catalog of courses distributed electronically - a high-tech correspondence school stripped of student services or the ability to grant accredited degrees.

Distance learning is what the third world needed to try to compete with the industrialized world. Emerging economies aren't burdened by the high cost of revamping existing infrastructure. They can (and often must) start from scratch. That means it's easier for developing nations to leapfrog the US and offer superior distance-learning methods. In what is truly the dawn of the information age, all civilized nations are in the starting blocks. Any one of them can lead this race. It's a matter of will.

Should Russia, China, or an African nation educate via modem better than their US counterparts, American college students will use the World Wide Web to go overseas to learn. If the best place to get an education in art history is through St. Petersburg State University in Russia, that's where students will point and click. Bureaucrats in American higher education had better begin seriously examining how to educate electronically or it will be catch-up time all over again.

To prevent the auto industry scenario, US educators should remember that the student is in fact a customer who deserves good service. For too long, administrations have treated students as afterthoughts. That's no way to run a business. Educators also must use the latest technology to provide customized degrees and professional certificates on measurable outcomes, rather than on how much time someone sits in a classroom.

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The newly authorized Western Governors University plans to offer a wide range of courses through a combination of Internet courses and walk-in learning centers. As yet, there are no plans to produce accredited degrees or certificates of professional standards, but that will come shortly.

By 2006, there will be more than 25 million post-secondary learners following degree paths or seeking professional development in the domestic US market. That number will easily be doubled by overseas demand and trebled when added to the cadres of high school students wishing to optimize their time.

As many US institutions fiddle and tweak with the traditional model and idly wonder how to tame education technology, people in places traditionally lacking in educational opportunities will be figuring out that the Internet is a weapon like nothing known before.

* Jack Gregg is a consultant and associate director of executive education for the Graduate School of Management, University of California at Irvine.

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