NEWS: Virtual U. Talk Worries Faculty

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Science  26 Jun 1998:
Vol. 280, Issue 5372, pp. 2019
DOI: 10.1126/science.280.5372.2019b

Many University of Washington (UW) faculty members are protesting hints that their state may try to save money by replacing flesh-and-blood professors with “techno-substitutes,” such as classes held totally on the Internet—a prospect they call “nothing short of disastrous.” Echoing their concerns are predictions that digital teaching will soon lead to a radical restructuring of universities.

The worries stem from starry-eyed comments this spring by Washington Governor Gary Locke and his higher education adviser Wallace Loh about “virtual universities,” in which students would learn from home by CD-ROM and the Internet. That thinking, says a letter signed by close to 900 faculty members, clinicians, and a few grad students, suggests that a blue-ribbon panel advising Locke on the future of public higher education is “bent on replacing face-to-face classroom teaching with … the ‘brave new world of digital education.’”

The letter also says some policy-makers want to supplant universities “by a profit-driven, digitalized ‘knowledge industry,’” just as health maintenance organizations have changed the playing field in medicine—a scenario not unlike one predicted last month in a report from financial analysts Coopers & Lybrand. The faculty planned to deliver the letter to Locke and the panel this week.

Faculty members don't oppose technology “per se,” which “we all use” in teaching, says history professor James Gregory, who helped draft the letter for UW's American Association of University Professors chapter. Nor do they reject the idea of electronic courses for, say, continuing education. What's worrisome is the notion that the state can save money by digitally educating future undergraduates, Gregory says: “Virtual universities would rob [students] of many parts of the college experience. … They seem to have missed the point. They are additions and not necessarily cheap additions.” According to Gregory, a faculty group hoped to meet with Locke to discuss the matter as soon as this week.

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