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Technical difficulties

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"Hold on just one second," David Fetterman said, launching into a storm of clattering keys and muffled words. "I have to type in a response to a student in Australia."

As he was being interviewed, the Stanford professor of education was participating in an interactive learning program designed to facilitate videoconferencing skills on the Internet, where students and professors from around the world discuss, through typed chat sessions, a series of NASA broadcasts.

When President Clinton talks about the Internet revolutionizing education, this is what he means. But while advanced technology is being used in small pockets of established academia, this is not what is happening as most universities branch out into what has become known as "distance learning."

"We are still taking baby steps," Fetterman said. "People are slow in terms of inertia. People want to stick with what they've done. The availability of technology is not the problem. People have to learn differently and teach differently."

That inertia may be pulling university administrators down the wrong path. Rather than creating a new way for students to learn over the Internet, many universities are just using standard Web technologies to draw more students to their schools and make traditional forms of learning more convenient.

This relative stagnation has been particularly frustrating for those who had believed that the nation's universities, as the inventors of the Internet, would lead the way in exploiting technology to usher in a new era of higher education.

"There are an increasing number of people willing to use the Internet at this point?but still only a small number of people are shaping the way they teach based on the Web and new technologies," said Robert McClintock, director of Columbia University's Institute for Learning Technologies, which works to advance the role of computers and other information technologies in education and society.

McClintock says that much prejudice against educational technology has broken down at universities in the last few years and that eventually it will be teachers, not Webmasters, who shape online education. But that has yet to happen.

Indeed, remarks by various professors indicate lingering skepticism and discomfort about the role of technology in education. That is certainly the case at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.

"Technology is an enabler. It is not the main thing," said Doug Durand, the professor in charge of the school's new online masters degree program in computer information systems, which is designed to allow IS professionals to continue formal education without interrupting their careers. The online degree program still requires students to come to the university for one week.

Durand is wary of "cutting-edge things," such as efforts at two-way videoconferencing and other wide-bandwidth, high-tech online learning tools. "The leading edge is the bleeding edge. We are driven by the practical needs of the course, students, and teachers involved."

Administrators like Durand are not alone. Bill Graziadei, the professor charged with developing teaching through technology for the SUNY system, is phasing in Web-based learning but only slowly. In explaining this pace, he points out that SUNY's 100,000 faculty, staff, and administrators, who work with roughly 400,000 students each year, are not Internet content producers.

"We are starting from traditional teaching and building slowly," he said. "Online learning is not going to solve educational problems, but it can enhance and extend learning. If we put such high expectations on it, people will be disappointed and turn away."

This has happened before. In the early 1960s, many educational experts predicted that instructional television would revolutionize education. Classes, they said, would be staffed only by teaching assistants whose job it was to turn on the television and ensure that the children paid attention. But when benefits failed to materialize, many educators turned away from the plan.

Today, however, no university can afford to ignore educational technologies because universities that don't get onto the Web will lose students. And while he swears that he will never give up the classroom entirely, he does see the Internet reaching a class of dispossessed students.

"Some believe that face-to-face learning is best. But for people that can't get to class, coming is obviously not the best way," he said. "Students will stop wherever they find what they need. If you're not in the market, you'll lose them."

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