space holder space holder October Contents | Gazette Home space holder

space holder Information technology makes teaching and learning possible around the clock and around the world. But some wonder if an Ivy League education can be delivered over the Internet.
By Susan Lonkevich

FROM 3,000 MILES away came a message that prompted a faint trembling of test tubes and sent a slight shiver down the spines of brittle tomes.
   "The research university is dead," pronounced Dr. Peter Drucker, the renowned management guru and Clarke Professor of Social Science at Claremont Graduate School. Linked to Penn's campus through satellite video, the influential octogenarian broke the news to some 80 leaders in education, technology, and business gathered at Penn in June to discuss "Higher Education in the Information Age." The two-day event concluded a celebration of the 50th anniversary of ENIAC, the first general-purpose, electronic computer, created by a research team at Penn. The conference was organized by the School of Engineering and Applied Science, along with Michael Eleey, ASC'69, WG'77, associate vice provost for computing and information systems.
   Drucker's outlook may be extreme, as some educators argue, but it stems from a more credible concept expressed repeatedly at the conference -- that market forces and information technology will transform higher
   education as we know it today. Previous speakers had already predicted the alteration of the traditional academic calendar, envisioned a university where professors commonly e-mail students around the clock, and warned of competition from colleges granting degrees over the Internet. Earlier, while conference-goers watched and listened in fascination, acclaimed violinist Pinchas Zuckerman had reached across the miles from Tel Aviv, through digital video technology, to give a lesson to a student in Philadelphia.
   "Technology is not the side show," said Dr. Gregory Farrington, SEAS dean. "It is utterly essential to the future of the institution."
   What does that future look like at Penn and similar universities?
   Dr. James O'Donnell, who holds the rather well-rounded titles of vice provost for information systems and computing and professor of classical studies, believes Penn will be around for a long time, both as a residential campus and a research university. But, he says, "I think we are in for some fairly drastic changes in the way that we do our business, in the business we do, and the markets we serve."
   And that actually could be a very good thing. Through the phenomenon known as interactive distance learning, for instance, Penn has the opportunity to educate an even more varied group of students than it does today.

Going the Distance For Education
   talk to O'Donnell about distance learning, and he'll argue that it began with the medieval university that brought a multitude of students from diverse family backgrounds and countries to Paris some 700 years ago. "A social monstrosity," he calls it. "A conservative, reasonable point of view in that age [would be that] you couldn't possibly create valuable community out of all these people who don't speak the same language, [with] no social structure around them, so they're going to have to invent it all from scratch." And they did.
   But the distance learning plan for Western Governors University, as described at the conference by Utah Governor Michael Leavitt, introduces a new set of challenges.
   The soft-spoken governor explained how WGU will use the Internet, videotapes, and other tools to offer degree and certification programs to students across the country. Faculty from potentially dozens of existing schools will teach the courses without leaving their own campuses. With support from 15 western states and a number of private corporations, the university plans to open its virtual doors next year. Continued...
October Contents | Gazette Home
Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 9/29/97