November 10, 1996 in Nation/World

WSU Putting Its Future On Line Up To 40% Of Classes May Be On Computer In 12 Years, But Cost, Isolation Worry Some Critics

By The Spokesman-Review
 

In 1922, Washington State College touted an exciting development: radio lectures for distant students.

Students, the college announced, could “sit in their own rooms at home, stick on their receiving headpiece at the appointed hour, open the switch, and hear the professor talk as though they were in a classroom at the college.”

Radio lectures never really caught on.

Seventy-four years later, Washington State University is using today’s technology to launch a far more sweeping effort. University officials say it will change teaching as much as electricity in classrooms did.

Within 12 years, WSU hopes to have students on campus and off - taking from 15 percent to 40 percent of their courses entirely by computer. Instead of sitting in lectures, students will study images and text on computers, communicating with professors and classmates mostly by electronic mail.

Instead of going to class, students will log on whenever and wherever they like.

The idea, borrowing a computer buzzword, is called “Virtual WSU.” The university pegs the cost at $30 million to $90 million over 12 years.

Proponents predict dramatically better learning. Instead of just using books, professors blend audio, video and text for students to explore. Last week, for example, students studying racial stereotypes were “morphing” images of one race with another, superimposing faces to suggest people are more alike than different.

One university official, Gary Brown, describes the process as “a new kind of literacy” for children raised on the graphics of home computers and Nintendo games.

“We simply cannot live in the past,” said Mahmoud M. Abdel-Monem, WSU’s interim provost for learning and technology. “We cannot continue using chalk and chalkboards.”

Also, administrators point out, taxpayers will be saved the cost of building labs, dorms and lecture halls. And the project will open the university’s doors to thousands of farflung working people who want to take courses, but can’t move to Pullman or a branch-campus city. Similar needs have prompted 13 states, including Washington and Idaho, to launch an entire on-line college, Western Governors University. Those classes start in 1998.

Critics of WSU’s project, including many professors, deride it as “McEducation,” and “Prof-in-a-box.” They say students need face-to-face interaction with instructors. They also say administrators are being seduced by technology’s bells and whistles, setting higher education - and taxpayers - up for an expensive fall.

“It is far too much, far too soon, for an unproven technology that basically has kids watching TV,” said Chuck Pezeshki, an associate professor of engineering.

“Is this what we want to promote? More TV watching? These kids need more positive interaction with elders.”

The university has already made some expensive changes for the age of the Internet. It recently spent $31 million to rewire the campus with high-speed data lines in every classroom, lab and dorm room.

A few professors are already moving their classes onto computer.

Assistant professor Joan Grenier-Winther wanted to revamp her French translation class.

“My goal was to tailor it to their (students’) academic needs and time schedules,” she said.

So she established a computer page that students can log on to, pulling down examples of French from their chosen fields, such as zoology or business. The students met once last spring, so Grenier-Winther could explain the system.

“After that, they never saw each other again,” she said.

The results were mixed. Of 14 students, two finished, three dropped out, and nine took “incompletes.” Of those, three later finished their work.

“They really liked the flexibility, but the comment was that they couldn’t work without the structure,” Grenier-Winther said. Next time, she said, she’ll set more deadlines.

On the plus side, such a “virtual class” tends to draw out shy students, she said. Silent students in class often turn out to be eloquent via e-mail.

“It’s amazing how students that are so timid in class … start blossoming,” she said.

Music professor Barbara Harbach still has traditional classes, but much of her students’ work is done by computer. Her Web site contains her lecture notes, musical vocabulary and musical scores.

“I’m still the sage on the stage,” she said, “but eventually I want to be the guide by the side.”

She’s convinced her students are learning more, faster, with the computers. “I could never go back to teaching this course the traditional way,” she said.

Among students, the reaction to computerized classes is mixed. Some are frustrated by the technology early on, only to be won over.

“I’m a visual learner. If you look at the computer it tells you what to do,” said Krista Studley, 19, of Auburn. “A lecture is all talk. It just goes in one ear and out the other. On a computer, you can venture out and explore.”

Others say they’d miss the face-to-face contact with a professor.

“I like the idea of learning at my own pace, but I like to interact with people,” said Adam Farabee, 18, of Seattle.

“I like the fact that there’s a lot of information on it. But I’m a people person. I like the reactions,” said Dena Rasmussen, a freshman from Camas, Wash. “I’d just feel, like, impersonalized.”

Some of the most successful computerized classes are freshman seminars, which cluster several students around a computer to do group work.

Even the harshest critics of Virtual WSU like having computers available. Pezeshki’s students are required to own one.

But he and others worry that the university is abandoning the human touch in learning.

“Anything I create isn’t going to be better than me in person,” said Pezeshki. “And I’m having difficulty getting the concepts across now.”

“Virtual WSU, in crudest terms, is data transfer,” he said. “That alone is not the key to building a better society.”

“Learning and teaching is social,” said Don Orlich, education professor. “Otherwise, why have schools?” he said. “Everyone could just go to the library.”

Critics also say Virtual WSU is a gimmick to wring more money from reluctant legislators.

“It’s like Eskimos feeding on found whales,” said Pezeshki. “It looks like Virtual WSU is the whale washing up on the beach. Nobody looks at whether the whale is good or bad.”

“The half-life of this equipment is two years,” said Orlich, pointing to a Macintosh computer on his desk. “We’ll have to go back to the Legislature with our hands out and say ‘We need another $10 or $20 million.”’

Virtual WSU fans are convinced the system will improve learning.

“In how many classes did you actually talk to the instructor each week?” said Sam Smith, the university president. “The reactions I heard as a child to filmstrips are the same reactions I’m hearing now: ‘You shouldn’t use filmstrips because there’s no interaction.”’

“If there are questions there, they are there whether the computers are there or not,” said Abdel-Monem. “Now they are asking. Before, they went through life without knowing the answer.”

“They (critics) are right,” he said. “This (computer) is a dumb machine. How intelligent it is depends on the faculty.”

There’s also an element of academic competitiveness driving the project. Other universities are putting courses on-line at a feverish pace. By next fall, Smith predicts, some 200 courses will be available on the World Wide Web.

“We like to think we’re leaders, and we’re pushing a little harder than most,” said Smith. “But we would be bypassed so quickly if we don’t move.”

“The big boys are doing it, the small boys are doing it,” said Roberto Bamberger, who helps engineering professors develop computerized classes. “Everyone’s sort of clamoring, trying to get market share right now.”

Smith thinks the skepticism about Virtual WSU is healthy.

“Look at the naysayers,” he said. “They’re saying ‘What’s the best way to teach?”’

He said the changes, while dramatic, are inevitable.

“We used to joke that there were three institutions that never changed: the railroads, the banks, and higher education,” he said. “Well, the railroads didn’t make it, and banks have changed.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PROFESSORS DISAGREE “We simply cannot live in the past. We cannot continue using chalk and chalkboards.” Mahmoud M. Abdel-Monem, interim provost for learning, technology

“It is far too much, far too soon, for an unproven technology that basically has kids watching TV. … Is this what we want to promote? More TV watching? These kids need more positive interaction with elders.” Chuck Pezeshki, associate professor of engineering

“I’m still the sage on the stage, but eventually I want to be the guide by the side.” Barbara Harbach, music professor

This sidebar appeared with the story: PROFESSORS DISAGREE “We simply cannot live in the past. We cannot continue using chalk and chalkboards.” Mahmoud M. Abdel-Monem, interim provost for learning, technology

“It is far too much, far too soon, for an unproven technology that basically has kids watching TV. … Is this what we want to promote? More TV watching? These kids need more positive interaction with elders.” Chuck Pezeshki, associate professor of engineering

“I’m still the sage on the stage, but eventually I want to be the guide by the side.” Barbara Harbach, music professor

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