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A Talk with Roger Schank

ROGER SCHANK: Universities are scrambling to get into the distance education business. They see the computer as vital to this enterprise but it is not obvious that they know why it is vital. Universities want to deliver courses via the web. They want to do this because they are frightened that someone will do it before them and gain more prestige or more student revenue. The people who are putting their courses on the web are not doing it because they are interested in the exploration of new teaching methods. They do not see the web as a revolutionary instrument. But that is just what it is.

It is easy to imagine that universities have suddenly become fascinated by the power of the computer, or that they have begun to worry about the kid from Dubuque who will never get to Boston let alone attend Harvard. But what is really going on has nothing to do with computers or with education for the masses. Universities are concerned that if Harvard ever got their act together and decided to deliver every Harvard course via videotape lectures and developed some way for students to interact with TAs to have homework graded, then everyone else would be out of business.

JB: Is this what Harvard has in mind?

SCHANK: Harvard isn't going to do this because they are Harvard after all, but what if some other very reputable and less stuffy place decided to give it a try? Would anyone go to Contra Costa Junior College if Virtual Harvard were available at the same price and at whatever time fit your schedule? This is what everyone is worried about.

This is not what we ought to be worried about however. Rather we should worry about what kind of education these Virtual U's are going to serve up. I am afraid I know the answer: the same old stuff they have been serving, only this time there will be no football, no fraternity parties, and nobody to b.s. with until three in the morning. It is reasonable to ponder how living in an isolating society is going to get even more so, but that is not our issue here. No one will stop this rolling freight train. But giving the train a reasonable direction wouldn't be a bad idea.

We know that Virtual U will serve up electronic courses, and therein lies the excitement. People are actually thinking about designing courses in a new way. They are not doing this because of the opportunity to redesign and rethink the concept of what a university can and should offer. They are designing courses in a new way because the new medium forces them to do so. Nevertheless, we suddenly have the opportunity to ask: What exactly should the offerings of a university be? What should a course be? Should there be courses at all? How can we make education better?