As 'Distance Learning' Takes off, US Lags Behind

By Gregg, Jack | The Christian Science Monitor, May 19, 1997 | Go to article overview
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As 'Distance Learning' Takes off, US Lags Behind


Gregg, Jack, The Christian Science Monitor


Developing countries in South America, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere, unburdened by costly campuses or tenured faculty and bureaucracies, are exploiting the Internet and other new technologies to educate people once excluded from learning modern skills.

Mexico, for example, is making information technology and education a prime directive. Its Tecnologico de Monterrey, a 26-campus consortium, has a mission to bring distance learning to everyone willing to participate. The newest campus is a fully functional virtual university serving students throughout Mexico. Young people in even the most remote areas use subsidized computers and modems to get the kind of education their parents never could have imagined.

On American campuses, on the other hand, many educators are hesitant to embrace the new education technology. These administrators conduct endless rounds of research and discussion on how to best use the Internet and similar tools, fretting as the technology reinvents itself almost daily. This indecision may allow other countries to get a head start on perfecting education through computers. In a way, distance-learning methods are like different kinds of cars. In the 1970s, while Detroit's Big Three failed to look forward, the Japanese auto industry began meeting the needs of consumers. Japan captured significant market share by selling cars people wanted. It's taken nearly 20 years for US automakers to recover. Like any other notion causing upheaval and change, there is a lot about using distance technology that unhinges academics. Obstructionists and naysayers point to the diminished role of faculty and the need for good, old-fashioned face-to-face learning. There is concern that control is being lost. There is also confusion about what distance learning really is. IN its simplest form, distance learning may be a catalog of courses distributed electronically - a high-tech correspondence school stripped of student services or the ability to grant accredited degrees. Distance learning is what the third world needed to try to compete with the industrialized world. Emerging economies aren't burdened by the high cost of revamping existing infrastructure. They can (and often must) start from scratch.

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