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Professors Peer Doubtfully Into a Digital Future

To some, David Noble is little more than a modern-day Luddite trying to derail inevitable advances in education technology on college campuses.

Others see in the history professor at Toronto's York University a latter-day Paul Revere - warning against an invasion of technology at universities that could shift learning from classrooms with professors to computer screens at the kitchen table.

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Dr. Noble's phone hasn't stopped ringing since he posted his essay, "Digital Diploma Mills: the Automation of Higher Education," on the Internet. It questions both the cost and educational value of the trend toward putting digitized course material online.

Proponents argue that technology holds the promise of expanding the reach of higher education, as well as meeting an anticipated influx of undergraduates and adults trying to upgrade skills. Not only would Internet courses be offered to "distance learners" too far away to attend classes, but even on campus, core courses would become CD-ROM course-ware disseminated by fiber-optic line to undergraduates sitting at terminals.

But others see warning signs in higher education's glide toward an increasingly digital future. Alarmed by college administrators' and corporate executives' visions of a world with redefined roles for professors and without bricks and mortar, faculty are taking action.

"There is mounting resistance to what are typically unilateral [university] administration initiatives to wire the campuses without regard for the pedagogical value or the economic cost," Noble says.

As a result, some campuses are seeing growing ferment in their academic halls. Faculty at York University held a two-month strike last fall. They won the right for professors to approve online course offerings based on their work.

On June 11, 850 faculty members at the University of Washington in Seattle signed an open letter to Gov. Gary Locke protesting the state's growing embrace of a vision of a "virtual university." The letter decried "public money diverted from 'live' education into techno-substitutes."

Helping set off the firestorm were references to a "brave new world" of higher education by a senior adviser on the governor's 2020 Commission. The commission is to develop new ways to supply higher education to an expected 70,000 to 80,000 additional college students over the next 20 years.

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Stan Marshburn, executive director of the 2020 commission, says the commission does not see technology as "a silver bullet." But, he adds, "The technology is here and applications of it are getting more sophisticated with each passing day. I do think the future will hold the opportunity for people to study at their kitchen tables."

But talk of equating online "campuses" with real ones is what raises eyebrows. "I'm not opposed to all forms of digital education or learning in any way," says James Gregory, an associate professor of history at the University of Washington. "But some of us feel some warning flags need to go up real fast. Some of what's being talked about is fiscally and pedagogically irresponsible."

The debate could soon widen. A report produced last month by education consultants at Coopers & Lybrand predicts a huge shift to virtual courses for core courses to meet a nationwide influx of undergraduates and older students.

"Software will serve an estimated 50 percent of the total student enrollment in community colleges, as well as an estimated 35 percent of the total student enrollment in four-year institutions," the paper predicts. Such shifts are beginning as universities, publishers, and software and hardware companies arrange to put courses online - and profit from them.

Such alliances include the University of California at Los Angeles and The Home Education Network in 1994; the University of California at Berkeley and America Online in 1995; and the University of Colorado and Real Education last year. The latter is an alliance between Microsoft Corp., Simon and Schuster, and Compaq Computer Corp.

"We provide all the hardware and software needed to put your entire campus online," trumpets the Real Education Web site. "Your online campus can deliver the same services as your physical campus."

Vicky Phillips, author of "Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools: Earn Your Degree Without Leaving Home" (Princeton Review), acknowledges a backlash against virtual education. "But I'm not sure it's really about distance learning or online education," she says. "I think it's about the changing role of the professor and the changing role of the university in society."

Loss of prestige as professors move from "sage on the stage" to online "guide on the side" is what really troubles professors, she says.

Noble demurs. "One way to dismiss rational voices is to call them technophobic," he says. "Those best situated to evaluate education quality are students. It is they who are insisting again and again they want face-to-face education."

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