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Students in Cyberspace

How the Internet and the World Wide Web are Changing Education
By Vinton Murray |

I magine students in the year 2000 evaluating colleges for their undergraduate and graduate studies. Instead of paying attention to the campus, its architecture, and the student/professor ratio, they will be reviewing the university’s web site, deciding which multimedia courses in the “distance learning” program to consider, and wondering what friends they might meet in the chat rooms.

With a vocabulary as innovative as the technology, higher education in the third millennium will barely resemble the traditional college experience. Students, courses, and even the campuses will have moved to a new address called cyberspace.

According to more than 20 professors and administrators from nine college campuses in or near Dallas, the Internet, or the net, is not only an important factor in education today, it is a critical and permanent component of higher education for the future. Combined with other non-traditional teaching methods such as teleconferencing, computer-based classes, class interaction via chat rooms, and televised or video classes, the net, according to every professor and administrator interviewed, is revolutionizing education. Many say it is the most important thing to happen to communication since Guttenberg perfected priming with movable type in 1457. One professor said putting a man on the moon will pale by comparison to the Internet.

“Technology is essentially driving the education arena. The role of teacher is no longer to stand and lecture; it is to facilitate and moderate,” says Dr. John Cox, director of the MBA program at Our Lady of the Lake. “The classroom evolved in order to facilitate a learning environment. The technology today takes us away from the need to have people sitting next to each other in a room. Will we give up the classroom? Technologically we could, but sociologically it will take time for people to be comfortable with it.”

For those born between 1968 and 1981, the comfort level is rising. In a survey recently conducted for the University of Dallas’ Graduate School of Management, 71 percent of 500 Generation X’ers said they are likely to take advantage of distance learning opportunities. Thirty-four percent currently use the Internet for educational purposes and are open to non-traditional teaching. “Educators must accommodate the student by providing courses which can be studied on a laptop computer, on the Internet, through video, e-mail, and satellite transmissions,” remarks Dr.

Paula Ann Hughes, dean of the school.

Dr. Philip Turner, dean of Library and Information Sciences at the University of North Texas, agrees. “The lecture hall where a professor meets with students for 45-hours to get three semester hours is changing. The technology allows students to access knowledge and information on their own. The challenge is to enable a process in learning where essentially you distribute power back to the student, and the teacher acts as a learning partner. Ultimately we won’t have the 45 hour course.”

Long Distance Learning: Not Too Far Away

Distance learning, where students and professors are not in the same place at the same time, is happening in various forms on almost every campus. Courses are being taught by satellite, two-way video conferencing, video tape, and e-mail. At the University of Dallas, students have been learning via long-distance for over 20 years. This year the university introduced three courses taught solely over the Internet.

According to Dr. Stan Kroder, the program director for Telecommunications Management, it is the first of its kind in the area. There are 30 students, all of whom are MBA candidates in the telecommunications management program. The web sites were designed and produced in conjunction with New Jersey’s Pace University. The semester-long courses involve 13 week modules. Using “threaded discussion,” students are able to have “private” communication with the professor on e-mail and “public” class discussion with fellow students and the professor on the web site.

If one is learning via the Internet, how does a student experience campus life? Will students be on a campus and need classrooms or libraries? “I think it is still very valuable for undergraduate students to be on a college campus,” says Dr. Mark Fuller, an assistant professor at Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business. “There is a socialization and a maturing process that occurs that the technology cannot replace. For graduate level students, particularly those in our executive program, distance education is much more realistic; networking is an important process but it can be on a Less frequent basis,” says Fuller. “Distance learning gives people who work both the time and the technology to continue their education.”

“I don’t think we will lose campuses, but they will be different,” says Dr. Doug Harris, associate dean of the Erik Jonnson School at the University of Texas at Dallas. “What we know today as a campus will be more like a research center for industry and academia, with smaller satellite campuses that are more like storefronts.” Harris, a former Texas Instruments executive with two masters degrees and a doctorate, is a proponent of the “virtual university,” where the branches of the University of Texas system would share their best assets, thereby making each branch as strong as possible. “Keep in mind,” he says, “every four years, half of what we know is obsolete. And, at the same time, there is twice as much new knowledge. The Internet just increases it.”

Web sites and hyperlinked pages are the states and cities of the information highway. “You get the web address of the slate or site you want to visit, and when you get there, you find the city or page you want to visit. Then you drive or click your mouse on that link and you’re there,” one professor says. Web pages are often works of art in themselves, using vibrant colors, movement, and sound available through multimedia. The main page of Parker College of Chiropractic is an example. Using a spinal column as the primary artwork, each vertebrae is a hyperlink to a sub-category, including course description, the academic calendar, admissions information, alumni information, and post-graduate seminar schedule. In addition to a main page for the campus, the school offers case histories and access to a pharmacological data base through the Internet.

Throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area, students have access to the Internet via computer labs, dormitory hook-ups for PC’s, and laptops. Most MBA programs require laptop computers and specific software so that students can communicate easily within the college’s own net or intranet. When MBA students register at the Dallas satellite campus of the Longview-based college, Le Tourneau, they are issued laptops complete with modem, printer, internet access, and e-mail- Most graduate schools require a laptop and supply some software. The University of North Texas in Denton boasts the highest computer-to-student ratio of any comparable university in the state. With one per 22 students, they have more than 1,130 computers.


Blackboards of the Future

For professors and administrators not comfortable with the computer, web sites, and search engines, the more advanced technology can be trying. Some attend classes and coaching sessions. Southern Methodist University (SMU) has created a lab called Digital Commons for professors, staff, alumni, and students to become comfortable with interactive media and other technology for the classroom.

With a Masters in Marriage and Family Counseling and virtually no computer experience, Ben Warner was facing a new job as director for publications and productions at Amber University in Garland. “So I went to the computer store, bought the computer, bought software that I thought was appropriate, read a lot, and worked with the computer.” He has now designed his second web site and is fluent in web-talk.

Jerry Dickenson, former chairman of Club Resorts and president of Club Corp. of America (CCA), is a lecturer in Hospitality and Club Management and is the first to hold the Dedman Chair at the University of North Texas. Shortly after retirement in 1996, he was laced with preparing a curriculum for his students. “I had planned to use the traditional book and lecture mode, but a colleague told me 1 would be a dinosaur.” Dickenson regrouped, attended a seminar, and hired a former colleague to help him design his class. He now teaches a class in multimedia, with digitized audio visual and sound interaction. Syllabus, assignments, lecture notes, and Q & A chat boxes are incorporated on a web page. “I think students learn more this way. With the web, they don’t have to constantly write in class. They can pay attention to the ideas.”

Three years ago Bonnie Wheeler, an English professor at SMU, had to go to Providence, R.I., due to a family emergency. For the next 10 days she taught her class via e-mail. Her class would meet in the computer lab and students would “discuss” medieval literature with her by way of the net. It was her first long-distance teaching experience and her first experience with the learning curve of the Internet-an experience she now calls “crucial.”

“Because we teach medieval literature, to move from the manuscript to the post print world is almost natural for me and my colleagues,” says Dr Wheeler. “I want my students to open up different modes of knowledge. I want them to think and write well, speak well, and argue well, but I also want them to manage the current technology with ease.”

“As a teacher the most interesting part is that students are using their minds in different ways. I get to know them better; I have more access to the whole person. The most important thing about students’ using the World Wide Web is that there is no longer one authority. ” Dr. Wheeler addd, “The web is 100 percent unreliable. Until we get better protocol, students have to judge and determine what is solid and what isn’t, what is substantial from insignificant, and what is provocative from the merely wrong.”

Figuring out right from wrong requires a certain skill level with the web. Many presume that if you are young, you are computer-literate, and conversely, if you are over 50, you probably don’t know your cyberspace from your summer place. It’s not necessarily the case. At SMU, freshman and transferring students are required to take a computer compatibility course or pass a test to be exempt from the course. This fall, of the 1,400 students who had to take the course, only four passed the test.

The Net Catching All Ages

On the other side of the SMU campus, tucked away in a renovated apartment building just east of the main campus, is a computer classroom for a slightly older group. Called Seniornet, this international, nonprofit organization introduces men and women over 55 to the ways of the computer and the web. Administered by SMU’s School of Continuing Studies, the on-campus office opened in 1994 with seven computers donated by IBM, a handful of volunteers, and a great sense of purpose. Since then, 2,500 retirees have registered for classes.

“When they come to class, almost everyone says ’I want to surf the net,’” says Seniornet teacher Witt Witten. “The trouble is once you teach them how to get on-line, you’ve lost your class.” Witten, who retired from IBM in 1991, has been a Seniornet teacher since 1994. He often spends 40 hours a week on the planning, teaching, and administration of the classes. As one of 40 volunteer teachers, he thrives on teaching and relishes his students, who range in age from the day after their 55th birthday to early 90s. According to Witten, some are researching family genealogy, others want to learn Quicken? to better manage their money, but “The truth is,” he says, “most people just want to be able to e-mail their grandchildren.”

By the year 2000, the student looking for colleges will be one of 185 million people on the net. One of the few entities that is growing faster than the national1 debt, the Internet has more than 40 million users from 170 countries, and web sites are being added to the Internet at a rate of 3,000 per day, with 1.2 million registered sites as of last March. “It’s important to realize that we are the last of the analog generation,” dean Turner says. “Kids 5 years old or less will be fundamentally different when they face college.”

According to the research and campus statistics, students are in search of self-paced education and the ability to learn on their own. “With the net and the surrounding technology, it is possible to accomplish these goals,” Turner says, adding with a smile, “We better be careful. We could work ourselves right out of a job.”


To anyone unfamiliar with the Internet and the web, D, with the help of Information Systems Professor Dr. Mark Fuller of Baylor University’s Han-kamer School of Business, offers the following, informal glossary:

Internet The term arose from the U.S. government’s project in the 1960s to create an international communications network that could withstand nuclear attack. Often called a “network of networks,” the Internet allows various organizations to talk with one another. Used as an umbrella expression, it is used in reference to tools like e-mail, File Transfer Protocol (FTP), Telnet, Usenet, Gopher, and web browsers, among others.

World Wide Web (aka. the Web): While this term is often used almost synonymously with the Internet, these expressions came from the development of the Internet tool called web browsers. Created in the 1990s, web browsers, like Mosaic?, Netscape?, and Internet Explorer? allow for multimedia documents to be shared over the Internet through “hyperlinks.”

Cyberspace and the Information Superhighway: often used interchange ably with the Internet, the distinction may be that the web is considered more like the software while cyberspace and the information super highway are considered the hardware that allow the telecommunications to happen.