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The Impact of the Internet on Higher Education

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The Internet is enriching and reinforcing "traditional" higher education in a variety of ways. Matthew Pittinsky looks at the roots of eLearning and its potential to change the institution of the university.
This chapter is from the book

The New York Times Magazine highlighted an article on its cover entitled "Online U—How Entrepreneurs and Academic Radicals Are Breaking Down the Walls of the University." The thrust of the story led one to believe that the Internet could cause the undermining, if not ultimately the elimination, of some of the nation's traditional colleges and universities, replaced by virtual universities in cyberspace.

Just a few months later, in the February 2000 issue of Mother Jones magazine, a featured article claimed the screaming headline, "A Campus of One... Who Needs Professors When the Online University Is Only a Click Away?"

Most recently, in a speech made during the summer of 2000, Michael Moe, a former Merrill Lynch analyst, warned, "The Internet is all about disproportionate gain to leaders. Eventually, it's going to turn the higher education market on its head. The 100 or so leading universities will do great; the other 3,400 are going to have to figure out how to make themselves relevant to the new economy."

These are clearly heady times for academic administrators, faculty, students, parents, investors, and any citizen who believes that our system of higher education is a cornerstone of America's economy and society. Almost daily, predictions like the ones just cited warn of dire changes; the logical consequences of the Internet and information technology will, they warn, play out dramatically across the college and university landscape.

From Dot-Com to Dot-Edu

If the opening quotes sound familiar, it is because many of the same arguments were made about the impact of the Internet on the business world. With the collapse of the "dot-com bubble" in April 2000, we have seen a reversal in thinking; unrestrained euphoria has melted into unquestioned skepticism. Much ballyhooed Internet companies have become history, rather than vehicles for changing history. Much maligned traditional businesses have once again proved their staying power. The lesson that business is business is being discovered anew by a youthful generation of would-be entrepreneurs. Brick-and-mortar factories and companies, as well as "brick-and-click" companies—traditional businesses that use the Internet to become more efficient—have triumphed over brash "click-and-click" startups that were purportedly going to transform the corporate landscape.

Proving the adage of deja vu all over again, similar trends are already forming in higher education. In July 2001, Temple University quietly shut down the Virtual Temple for-profit spin-off it had created in late 1999. Four months later in November 2001, New York University announced the closing of its for-profit distance-learning venture NYU Online. Even the University of Maryland's successful UMUC Online has faced regulatory difficulties, as is discussed in a later chapter of the book.

Yet for every article in the Chronicle of Higher Education announcing the end of a postsecondary Internet venture, two more can be found describing an e-learning project that was successful, although with perhaps more modest aspirations. At institutions as diverse as the Uni- versity of Texas Telecampus, University of Phoenix Online, Penn State World Campus, and Dallas Community College District alone, more than 100,000 enrollments are learning online. In the fall of 2001, nearly 30 percent of all campus-based college enrollments arrived to find the Web a meaningful part of their course administration and delivery.

DeSalles University is developing an online MBA program for deaf students and the hearing impaired. It will begin operating in Fall 2002 and the language used will be text-based supported by graphics. Having grown up with sign language, many of the enrollments will simply be thought of as students with a different first language. At Skidmore College, a course on Harlem's culture high-lighting contributions and clashes is given both in class and online. Online students read summaries of lectures and discussion at their own convenience—a hybrid model.

Beyond sparking dramatic new models, the Internet is most commonly (and successfully) enriching and reinforcing "traditional" higher education in a variety of ways. For example, through campus Web portals, students can register for courses, make appointments to meet with advisors, check the syllabus for courses, reach everyone on campus through electronic bulletin boards and email, and check grades and exam schedules. Collaboration between faculty and students, which is so critical to the instructional pro- cess, is being made easier with Web discussion boards. Cooperation among faculty is being simplified as documents are shared online. In short, rather than falling into irrelevance due to the Internet, campus life is simply becoming more integrated and more connected—thanks specifically to Internet technologies. This is only the beginning.

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