Since the early 1990s, campuses like Cal State Dominguez Hills and UC Irvine have been supplementing traditional teaching methods with "distance learning" techniques like videoconference classes and e-mail tutorials. But not until this fall did we see ambitious plans for two large, accredited "virtual universities" whose main campus will be the Internet.
In September, 13 western states said they will open the Western Governors University by next June. Gov. Pete Wilson later announced that California, rather than join the WGU, will establish its own virtual university based on the state's vast pool of academic and high-tech talent. At both institutions students will be able to attend on-line classes, download textbooks and meet with faculty via teleconference.
The WGU and California plans are now being breathlessly sold as the greatest educational innovations since Plato's academy. That remains to be seen, but most educators agree that virtual universities have the potential to:
* Improve professional recertification programs. Physicians could be required to demonstrate proficiency by computerized exam.
* Broaden educational access. Adults who don't have the time or money for night school could retool their skills to meet the needs of an ever-changing job market.
* Reduce operational costs, since state governments might not have to build expensive new campuses to accommodate the predicted tidal wave of college applicants.
In an effort to lure as many public and private colleges as possible into the virtual university project, the Wilson administration is now circulating a proposal emphasizing that each campus would be free to devise its own approach. Sacramento needs to come up with greater incentives than free choice, however, because many colleges, having successfully experimented with distance learning on their own, are unlikely to join the project without some kind of financial reward in sight.
Equally important is the need to carefully assess which types of high-technology work best in which situation. For instance, Silicon Valley's Academic Systems Corp. has demonstrated that students taking its computerized algebra course achieve higher rates of passage than those taught in conventional lecture halls. On the other hand, Cal State's Monterey Bay campus had to scale back its distance learning plans after faculty members complained, saying among other things that they had become deluged with e-mail.
The biggest challenge for both Sacramento and the WGU will be changing federal and state laws that prohibit the use of student loans to take out-of-state classes. If they take this and other challenges seriously, there's no reason why a keyboard and cathode ray tube can't represent an exciting new avenue in higher education.