LAST FRIDAY, University of Washington regents received an angry letter from more than 900 faculty members, protesting the Governor's 2020 Commission on the Future of Higher Education—which, the profs charge, seems more in line with Microsoft ad copy than with the realities of university education.
The issue, as usual, is money. The 2020 Commission's primary charge is to address the state's impending crisis over a swelling enrollment (as a result of the "baby boom echo") while state funds continue to shrink. The commission is stacked with local technology executives, including Microsoft vice president William Neukom and former Sharp CEO Jon Shroyer, but includes not a single UW professor. And it has bullish expectations for the ability of online education—"the virtual university"—to mitigate the U's financial squeeze.
In a recent speech at the university, Gov. Gary Locke's education adviser, Wallace Loh (a UW Law School dean), projected a 25 percent increase in college-level enrollment over the next 20 years. He suggested, among other things, that the "basic format of instruction [that] has been face-to-face" be "liberated" by new technologies, "which deliver education at a lower cost, serve nontraditional students, are responsive to community needs, and operate as laboratories for innovation."
"Technology is not a panacea or magic bullet to educate an additional 80,000 students on the cheap," says UW Computer Science and Engineering chair Ed Lazowska, who chose not to sign the faculty protest letter for fear that it would be misperceived because of its shrill tone. The department already broadcasts masters-level computer science lectures over the Web and offers "no contact" video-conference classes from remote classrooms at Microsoft and Intel in Portland. Lazowska insists that technology, even technology as simple as e-mail, can open new learning opportunities and improve communication between students and instructors, much as Loh described, but warns, "There's no sign that distance education is any cheaper than the traditional classroom."
The 2020 Commission is expected to deliver its recommendations to the governor and state Legislature in September.
What the Guv said
Excerpts from Gov. Locke's April 27 speech to high school seniors:
In the Information Age, the primary resources that will drive our economy will be knowledge, creativity, and imagination.... But all the college professors and administrators you'll encounter in the next few years may not understand this historic change. And those who do understand it may not recognize how dramatically a knowledge-based economy will affect what you need to learn, and when you need to learn it.... In fact, people may actually spend less time in classrooms, because learning will be available in many other formats. You might take a course that's available on a CD-ROM, or sign up for online tutoring from a teacher or a professional who lives and works in another state or another country. You might participate in seminars at your workplace, or at a community center. Or you might learn by rotating assignments from one department of a company to another. Where you live—even if you live in Forks or
Zillah—won't be a barrier to learning, because technology will make both teachers and knowledge available worldwide. So you might take a course from a university in Japan or China or Belgium.
The profs talk back
From the open letter to the governor signed by more than 900 UW faculty members and delivered to the Board of Regents last Friday:
Visions of education "without bricks and mortar," of education by CD-ROM and Internet, have dominated the initial meetings of the 2020 Commission.... While costly fantasies of this kind present a mouthwatering bonanza to software manufacturers and other corporate sponsors, what they bode for education is nothing short of disastrous. Public money diverted from "live" education into techno-substitutes will further erode students' access to the low-cost, high-quality education upon which their real futures depend.... In reality a privileged few will continue to enjoy the personal and economic benefits of face-to-face instruction at schools like Stanford, UC-Berkeley, and MIT. The less-fortunate citizens of our state will make do with downsized and underfunded campuses or settle for inferior and dehumanizing "virtual" alternatives. Chances are that neither will qualify the students of the future to compete for the kind of jobs they want.