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What We Don't Need is a UNC-Cyberspace

Technology has wonderful applications in education, but there will never be a replacment for the classroom.

Published: Friday, August 1, 1997


Page: 13A

By DANIEL B. CATON, Special to The Observer

With the summer beaches in my rear view mirror, my attention begins to turn again to the new academic year. New faces, new courses--one of the spiritual benefits of teaching is that you get an additional New Years Day each fall.

This year there will be the usual ripples of change in the University of North Carolina system. And, we may have to lay down sandbags against more significant waves of change that originate in the legislature. We're still a little damp from dealing with undertow of recent issues-- post-tenure review (we already do this), increased work loads (often narrowly perceived as only including time in the classroom), and questionable tenure denials for popular teachers at our flagship campus.

With the arrival of Molly Broad as the captain of our fleet of campuses, we have more unknowns. Ms. Broad has become very interested in technology, and, at the same time, the General Assembly has in the last couple of years asked the University to explore technological applications for reaching more of our citizens. The timing of this could be critical.

I'm worried about more than just a little high surf-- there may be a sea change.

The idea of using technology to teach from afar ("distance learning" in eduspeak) at first seems appealing. Students across the state (indeed, across the world) could take courses via the Internet. North Carolina embraced similar technology earlier, when it set up high-speed, two-way video classrooms on all campuses. Teaching via the Web seems like a natural extension of this concept. Already, UNCC teaches a physics course on the Web, and entire degrees are obtainable from institutions out of state. And, facing a possible tidal wave of baby-boomlet students, legislators may be tempted to address enrollment increases by cheaper means than traditional classroom teaching.

But, college life is more than sending Junior to the spare bedroom PC to log on for four years. If it was that simple we could already just point out the library, give them a list of books, and test them occasionally. University teaching is something else again. Much, if not most of the communication in the classroom is subtle--nuances of expression that convey the importance of the study at hand--this cannot be reduced to Web pages.

The social experience at college also has inestimable value and impact on the student. Campus life includes quiet evenings at the library and sunny days lying on the grass. And, yes, it includes noisy parties and waking up on the grass the next morning! All-night cramming and all- night jamming. This is not going to happen at 56.6 kilobaud.

Technology has wonderful applications in education, and students and professors take as much advantage of these opportunities as budgets allow. I use the Web every day in my teaching, research and service activities. But we must realize that there will never be a replacement for the personal interaction of learning in the classroom, lab, stage or studio, and we must continually plan to expand our facilities to meet needs. While the State's constitution declares that we should provide University benefits "as far as practicable, ... free of expense", the citizens of our state should not allow the cheapening of the University with electronic substitute teachers.

Traditionally, the General Assembly has respected the value of the University of North Carolina. New buildings were built and professors hired as the college-bound population grew. Extra state revenue was often spent on capital projects on campuses to allow orderly growth. The newer legislators need to review that history and visit our wonderful campuses. And, ask themselves if a high-speed phone line is a worthy method of access to these virtual reefs of living knowledge

If our new system President wants to provide us with meaningful technology, there are plenty of unmet needs to address. All students, faculty and staff should have Internet access and e-mail. Campus efficiency could be increased by installing an "Intranet" and disposing of the flood of paper purchase orders, memos, and newsletters. Replacement of archaic accounting, registration, and communication software that now stems the flow of information. Obsolete lab equipment and computing facilities are also sadly abundant. What we don't need is a UNC- Cyberspace.

Let's leave the learning process alone. The classroom is like an inviting warm beach-- the student wades in and gets immersed in the knowledge. History is replete with predictions of technology improving this basic intellectual soaking process. From TV's to computers, these panaceas for learning have regularly washed up on shore and dried out. Web degrees are destined to become another piece of this debris.

Return to Caton's columns.

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