Bradner's column: Ivy-covered bits?

It seems that there will soon be no need for the hallowed halls of academe.

The New York Times reported in a special "Education Life" supplement on April 4 that at least one management guru (Peter Drucker) predicts that: "30 years from now, the big university campuses will be relics".

The scenario is that modern technology, particularly the Internet, will cause such a shift in distance learning that there will be nobody needed to cut the grass for commencement. I could not tell from the article how much the author accepted this, but I have quite a hard time with it.

Distance education is far from new. There have been correspondence schools since who knows when, and educational TV stations have been broadcasting lectures for decades. But the idea of distance learning is certainly now in vogue, with the Internet seen as the grand facilitator.

Just about every university is trying to figure out what to do in this area, at minimum as a protective measure - to see what effect the distance-learning initiatives of others will have on them. The largest distance-learning efforts under way are Western Governors University, a consortium of 17 states plus Guam, and the Open University, a 29-year-old project of the BBC.

But if one steps back a bit, away from the enchantment with the technology, the future gets a bit more difficult to predict. It seems clear that some types of education are very well suited to distance learning. Continuing education for doctors and dentists, which is required in many states, and special classes that vendors hold to teach people to use their products, seem to be ideal. Students can take them when they want to and only take the ones they need, and they can do so without travelling.

On the other hand, I find it very hard to believe that four years of undergraduate education obtained while sitting in front of a PC in your home can in any way substitute for the social and intellectual interaction of the same four years spent on a college campus dealing with classmates and professors.

But there is another whole area of issues that will make it very hard for most of today's universities to jump into the distance-learning business. It will take years, for example, to figure out ways of providing incentives for professors to put together the online lessons and to work out the intellectual property rights for all the materials used in the classroom.

So I'm not worried that Harvard will fade away any time soon (even though my Harvard Extension School class is on the Net).

Disclaimer: Brand-namewise, Harvard might have a head start in the area of distance learning, but the above are my own musings.

Scott Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@harvard.edu.

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