Originally created 04/10/98

Academia wary cyber-learning issues



LOS ANGELES -- When UCLA administrators announced last fall that they would create Internet Web sites for nearly every undergraduate class, they expected a chorus of cheers to greet this newest step into academic cyberspace.

Then came the jeers. And they came from a group that looked unusually distinguished for college rabble-rousers -- the faculty.

At one meeting, a white-haired professor in gray tweed warned colleagues not to allow their course materials on the World Wide Web without a formal protest. Another in a natty bow tie cautioned that UCLA could not be trusted with their ideas -- hadn't administrators tried to cash in on a medical school staffer's plot for a TV hospital drama?

Then English professor Jonathan Post stood, folded his arms across his blue blazer and declared: "I'm here because I'm a techno-paranoid."

No one laughed.

Indeed, although many university faculty members embrace the Internet and other tools of computerized instruction, others -- particularly the old guard -- are suspicious of higher education's mad dash into the Information Age:

Will bosses eavesdrop on their online exchanges, chilling academic freedom? Or will outsiders hack into supposedly secure Web sites and steal their ideas?

How can professors keep their independence if schools are seduced by profits from corporations that mass market online courses?

Does "distance learning" diminish a professor's ability to inspire as a mentor or motivate as a nag?

And with the likes of Microsoft moving into the college market, how long will it be before online courses push the delete button on teaching jobs?

"The real problem," said Mary Burgan, secretary-general of the American Assn. of University Professors, "is that administrators and lawmakers are selling technology as a substitute for faculty."

Such concerns have touched off a frenzy of e-mail around California State University's 22 campuses since a partnership was proposed with Fujitsu, GTE, Hughes Electronics and Microsoft.

The firms promise to spend $300 million on a fiber-optic backbone connecting the campuses in exchange for the right to sell a projected $3.8 billion in high-tech products over the next decade.

So just try convincing James L. Wood, a San Diego State sociologist, that the online network won't be used -- despite official denials -- to profit off faculty work.

"I don't know how they can make the kind of money they want to make without selling faculty lectures," Wood said.

"Will professors who teach, say, Biology 101 find they are no longer needed if such introductory courses can be taught online by star professors on other campuses?"

To leaders of academia, such fears are hopelessly behind the times. They see the computer as the perfect tool to bring the university together through instant communications -- while sharing its wisdom around the world.

Today's students own laptops and expect dorm rooms to be wired for easy Internet hookups, enabling them to e-mail their professors at 2 a.m. -- or make dates. The fledgling California Virtual University already offers more than 700 classes from dozens of colleges. Schools in 14 other states are plunging into distance education through the Western Governors University.

When it comes to ringing alarm bells on campus, few have an edge over David F. Noble, a social historian whose books focus on how technology has displaced workers and altered society.

At York University in Toronto, Noble was a leader of a faculty strike last spring in which technology was a major issue. After 55 days on the picket line, professors won a unique provision in their contract: None can be forced to use technology in classrooms or deliver courses over the Internet.

A visiting professor this year at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., Noble has spread his gospel by giving talks at UCLA, UC Irvine and other campuses. His writings also have made the rounds -- ironically, via the Internet.

His article, "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education," argues that "universities are not simply undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education."

Noble, 52, has taken special interest in UCLA -- where the Internet began in 1969 -- because of its move to create Web sites for all 3,300 undergraduate courses in the College of Letters and Science by the end of this academic year, with or without faculty blessing.

"They have gone after the dock workers, the auto workers and the steel workers," he said. "And now, they are coming after us. A lot of faculty say, `There is no way they can automate what I do.' And they are right. But they will automate anyway and take the loss in the quality of education. This is not about education. This is about making money."

UCLA administrators have been scrambling to calm the waters. In a March 4 memo, Brian Copenhaver, provost of the College of Letters and Science, assured department chairs that there are "no plans" to use Web sites commercially and that "no member of the faculty will be `mandated' to make any use of the Web that he or she finds inappropriate."

The Web sites have drawn some student protests, one outside the chancellor's office. But their main gripe is the $10 to $14 add-on fee per course to help fund a $4-million Educational Enhancement Initiative, which also includes Web sites for each student.

Students' main criticism of the class sites is that most are, well, boring -- merely online versions of handouts they get in class anyway.

For the most part, that's not the doing of the professors. They don't have to do anything to the sites, which are created by technicians using the syllabus and other materials instructors routinely turn over to their departments.

To an outsider, a syllabus may not seem like much. It's usually an outline of topics covered in a course, including homework, required readings and a bibliography.

To faculty, however, the syllabus is the distillation of years of knowledge and teaching experience. The best, they say, are essentially the outline for a book.

In the past, only a small percentage of professors -- usually in medicine, engineering and hard sciences -- worried about the issue of someone else profiting off their work.

If a professor's research using campus laboratories led to the discovery of, say, gene-splicing, the university would claim ownership of the patent and share the royalties. But a professor who wrote a textbook about medieval Europe kept the copyright and worked out his own deal with a publisher.

Now, new commercial possibilities have caught the eye of college business offices.

At UCLA, music professor Robert Winter -- working outside the university -- mixed a dazzling display of sound and images on CD-ROMs that sold hundreds of thousands of copies and made him rich enough to build a big house in Pacific Palisades, with its own multimedia studio.

So the school has placed him in charge of the UCLA Center for Digital Arts, with the goal of inspiring others to do cutting-edge work on campus, under negotiated deals for sharing the take.

"The more commercial potential," Winter said, "the larger the share the university will offer the faculty member."

When universities traditionally ponder profits, he noted, "the social sciences, the humanities and arts have been marginalized. But in this new digital revolution, they are at the center."

The shifting rules produce uncertainty among professors who never have had to share their intellectual property rights with their employer.

Then comes Noble, passing around documents covering online classes for the huge UCLA Extension program -- suggesting that the school will own rights to courses.

Noble has found similar language in UC Berkeley Extension's contract with America Online and the University of Colorado's contract with Real Education, a private firm working with Microsoft.

All these, he argues, are "beachheads" in a commercial incursion into academia. He wonders what will become of their classes as they are marketed for a mass audience.

"We're talking about the `Disney-fication' of courses," Noble said. "They will be packaged to meet the market, just like television. Why settle for me, when you can have the writers for `Seinfeld' write the script? That's where we're headed."