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THE MARKET TRULY driving this initiative, which "is about challenging and rethinking the very fundamental way in which we measure what people need to know," Leavitt said. "The president of a major high-tech company told me, 'If I can't find people who have the skills that I need today, I can't survive. Our colleges and universities are not adapting fast enough.'" The virtual university, as he pictures it, won't replace on-campus education, but Leavitt argues that "any campus that does not have the capacity to deliver this kind of education will ultimately be shorting their students ... and they will be at a serious disadvantage in terms of their ability to compete in the marketplace."
   Copied on a large scale, however, this plan could dramatically increase the ratio of students to professors, warned Dr. Steven Knapp, provost of Johns Hopkins University. He questioned whether such initiatives would "wipe out" large portions of faculty, and whether many institutions "would, in fact, perish in the competition."
   The market-conscious approach of WGU and the influential role of private corporations in the enterprise also drew some cautionary comments. "Most of what I teach and write about doesn't have much market value," said Dr. Mark Taylor, a humanities professor at Williams College. "I think it's crucial for people in the arts and humanities to find new ways to participate in these new [media] and to make them places for critical thinking."
   Penn junior Myra Lotto described a very different kind of distance education already being tested here. Unlike the "broadcast" model of one lecturer to many students, the so-called "24-hour classroom" is interactive to the extreme. English 103, The Short Story, was "one of the most exhausting experiences I've ever had," she said, but one that "taught a whole new way of thinking." Her English professor, Dr. Alan Filreis, assigned topics in class, and students divided into position groups. When they returned to their dorms and clicked on their computers, the intellectual battles began. Over one semester the students -- and their professor -- exchanged 4 million bytes, or 2,200 pages, of impassioned text. "There's nothing like opening up your e-mail account every day to see 74 new messages from your adoring classmates," Lotto said. "Frantic e-mailings at 3 a.m. gave way to screaming matches in the hallways." In essence, "class never ended."
   Dr. Michael Zuckerman, C'61, a Penn history professor who even abstains from e-mail ("It's a little cluttered," he explains. "More than enough people reach me."), isn't impressed with any model of distance learning. There simply is no replacement for teaching face to face, he says. "For universities to be walking away from those remarkably wonderful connections is a betrayal of the smidgen of humanity that we cling to," he laments. "I think a lot of discoveries come not out of impersonal exchanges, but come with inflections of voice, and with heat, and anger, and edge, and fashion, and irony, and viciousness ... But all of that is tougher to convey over e-mail communication that's so clipped and abbreviated anyway. It doesn't even bring out the kind of exquisiteness one can get in speech."
   The effectiveness of distance learning would depend on the subject being taught, believes Dr. Bruce Kuklick, C'63, Gr'68, the Jeanette P. and Roy F. Nichols Professor of History and undergraduate chair of the history department. "If you're taking an accounting course, who cares? If you're taking a course on the English novel, it makes a big difference."
   Although he finds information technology useful for rapid communication, Kuklick doubts it can transform teaching for the better. "All the basic problems in the world of education are human problems, and they can't be resolved by technology."
   He also views e-mail exchanges of the kind described by Lotto as "tangential" to the substance of a course, "which is the more disciplined reading and writing." Says Kuklick, "I think the computer revolution kind of goes along with the general idea that everyone has something to say, and this is a way for everybody to spew out what they want ... but I don't believe everybody has something to say. I think learning and knowledge require some study, and reflection and thought to construct coherent arguments."
   Like many private universities, Penn is studying more selective uses for distance learning and doesn't view WGU as direct competition. "In principle, someone could teach a freshman calculus on-line-for-anybody course and sell it for a decent price," O'Donnell says. But educational quality might be sacrificed in the process. "We now turn away something like four out of every five people who want to come here and get a bachelor's degree. In so doing, we produce a community of people on campus who are all very smart, very competitive, creative, and therefore, interesting to know. A significant part of what we offer to people who want to come and beat down our doors is a first-rate faculty, but also classrooms in which first-rate work will be done. So the question is, if you open up the virtual doors to the world outside, how do you design programs that are comparably enriching?" With that in mind, Penn is more likely to experiment with the new technologies in a way that will offer continuing education to alumni, and even non-alumni professionals.
   At the undergraduate level, O'Donnell says, students on campus could "reach out in individualized, targeted ways to get the special experience they need from someplace else.' In turn, students who study or do research overseas, be it for a few weeks or a semester, could also stay in touch electronically with Penn.
   Also possible in future years is "a more intermittent form of face-to-face learning" for well-motivated students who, due to family commitments, finances or other obstacles can't spend an entire semester on campus: "Show up for two weeks of orientation," O'Donnell explains. "Go back to your real life. Show up for a weekend six weeks later. Come back for a week at the end of the semester. And in between that time have highly structured communication, curriculum, and so forth." Continued...
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