College insists on internet familiarity

December 8, 2000

With distance education being touted as a way to bring high-level courses to far-flung audiences, one American university has begun an odd experiment, requiring students on its campus to take at least one online course per year from its own faculty.

The idea, said officials at Fairleigh-Dickinson University, is to make students more familiar with the internet.

"We've asked ourselves what is the skill set global citizens will need," said J. Michael Adams, who, as president of the school, imposed the first-of-its-kind requirement.

"One of those things is facility with the internet. In the future, if an individual feels he or she needs to learn a new skill, we believe the first place they will look is on the internet."

When the policy takes effect in the autumn, Fairleigh-Dickinson students will be required to choose from among 12 to 15 online courses in various disciplines.

The move comes as the effectiveness of distance learning continues to be criticised. Mary Burgan, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, testified before Congress that the web is not an adequate substitute for face-to-face interaction between students and faculty. She urged that higher education "resist the siren call to bring the academic environment into the rush of the technology marketplace".

Even Dr Adams said he had reservations. "I question whether full-degree programmes are the best use of this technology," he said. "I love the classroom. I love the magic of the interaction. Good classroom instruction is magical. But bad classroom instruction is depressing. In a similar manner, when skilfully delivered, distance learning can be a powerful tool."

Rather than call his idea odd, he said: "I would rather view it as an opportunity to magnify the power of what our goals are."

Dr Adams said that it is also actually more, rather than less, expensive to operate distance-learning on the scale envisioned by the 9,000-student university, which is in the northeastern state of New Jersey. Among other things, the school is spending $5 million to upgrade its computer network.

Seventy per cent of US universities now offer distance-learning programmes, but none for the students on their own campuses.

"A common view of distance learning for many universities is that it is a way to reach new markets and create a new income stream," Dr Adams said. "We're not taking that view. The corollary is that if you can reach out to that world, you can bring the world back to the campus."

Academic, cultural and corporate leaders from all over the world are being recruited to become involved in the university's distance-learning courses, he said. "If I'm an anthropology student, if I take that course by distance learning, I may be online part of the week with an anthropologist on the ground in New Guinea, all of which adds a world view to the educational process."

The new requirement has been approved by the university's faculty.

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