The University Record, April 22, 1997

Geomery calls for large-scale use of
distance learning

By Jane R. Elgass

Recent advances in technology and the development of asynchronous learning networks (ALNs) give real meaning to the concept of lifelong learning and mean that students no longer have to return to the classroom.

The advent of ALNs also foreshadows a significant transformation of education, particularly higher education, said Ralph E. Gomory, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, at a recent address in Rackham Amphitheater.

Speaking on "New Opportunities for Learning Outside the Classroom," Gomory explained that these advances add new capabilities in teaching as faculty apply imaginative use of new technologies to traditional methods of teaching.

"We are entering an era where education and training are available cheaply and easily," Gomory said, but he chastised higher education for being "unfriendly" to the technology even though it is the originator of much of that technology.

With ALNs, he said, "everything is electronic. They are anytime, anywhere learning networks."

While the technology will rapidly get cheaper and faster, Gomory maintains there's no good reason not to tap into its capabilities now, adding that the biggest current barriers are of habit, both institutional and individual, and of unfamiliarity.

Gomory noted that it already has been established the people can learn using ALNs, that the results are comparable to classroom learning and that the development of ALNs is possible with standard support software that is easily available.

What's not known yet, because there really have not been any large-scale experiments, are the answers to some questions about how people learn in the new environment---questions related to such things as interaction with others, appropriate use of graphical material, the right class size, whether it is important to have an initial "live" class, how much students can learn on their own, and how much they need interaction with the faculty.

"There is a wide range of answers to these questions," he said. "What we need to do now is determine the answers through experience with this approach to teaching and learning."

He also noted that the education community may see a change in providers of learning, with the shift most apparent between subsidized institutions (gift money, state funding) and non-subsidized institutions, which today generally don't compete with universities.

"The new technology enables more competition, especially if new providers master this approach," Gomory said. "And it's possible to provide learning at a level comparable to that offered by universities."


Panelists issue notes of caution
Three faculty members and President Lee C. Bollinger responded last week to Ralph E. Gomory's presentation on "New Opportunities for Learning Outside the Classroom."

ALNs are an exciting development that allow for presentation of research and teaching at the same time, noted Dionissios Assanis, professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics. "We want to impact as many people as possible with research, and ALNs allow for this. There are thousands out there who can benefit."

He has taught a class that took advantage of the Internet, with students in Ann Arbor, Germany and Mexico. He noted that the U-M students found the course exciting, saying that the industry people asked the best questions.

Assanis also noted that "opportunities with the new technology are endless." It might take thousands of dollars to replicate a research laboratory, but the new technology makes it possible to run experiments remotely.

Involved with "Windows to the Universe," a Web-based program available to the general public, Roberta Johnson noted that "it's important to free people from a strict schedule, to open up learning to all."

Johnson, who is an associate research scientist in the Space Physics Research Laboratory, also offered some words of caution.

This approach, she said, requires self-motivated students and is not necessarily easier than traditional forms of teaching, especially for the teacher at the beginning. The teacher must have the time to develop the course, the necessary organizational skills, and people available to help implement the new approach.

She also feels that some person-to-person contact is necessary and fears that large-scale, national ALNs might lose this.

Eric Rabkin, professor of English, raised the issue of "authority" and its importance in learning.

The medium used to communicate authority "makes an enormous difference. The relationship between student and teacher is reconfigured by the medium we use to communicate," Rabkin said.

A critical issue to be addressed, he noted, is determining what Web pages are really good, what information is true. He cited as an example a Web page that indicated Leonard Nimoy was a vegetarian. Rabkin met Nimoy recently and asked him how he'd become a vegetarian. Nimoy said he was not. Rabkin discovered in reviewing Web pages that a semantic link was made, possibly when Nimoy owned a pet store, that led to the erroneous information.

"The way in which one decides whether the material is valuable is critical," Rabkin stated.

Bollinger said the virtual university concept worries him. "There's an inner culture here. It's very important to have a traditional university. What these institutions stand for in their culture is threatened by the concept of a virtual university."

Gomory replied that in advocating ALNs, he was not talking about replacing the traditional university. "In our thinking, [ALNs] are an add-on. Universities will go on. It's hard to beat what happens in a university. Much of what goes on is not acquisition of knowledge. Some things are suited to the new media, and some are not.

"It's important to find out what it is that is the advantage of a great university, and then reflect on ways to use the new technology. Acting as if it doesn't exist is not the answer," he added.