Using the Internet to Strengthen the College Experience

This Op-ed ran in the The Boston Globe on Sunday, November 12, 2000.

Since the Internet became widely used in the early and mid-1990s, much has been prophesied about its impact on higher education, but the public debate has often been shrill and polarized, obscuring the true potential of new technologies. Typically, what we hear are arguments between those rushing to embrace the Internet as an alternative to, and even a substitute for, "traditional" means of education and those who fear that technology threatens the face-to-face interaction that makes college and university campuses vital, transforming places.

On one side are Internet entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and some academicians who argue that "distance learning" will permanently alter the landscape of higher education, potentially rendering the campus-based university obsolete. As one member of this camp, Columbia University Teacher's College President Arthur Levine, warned in a much discussed ­ and much critiqued ­ essay in the New York Times, "colleges and universities are not in the campus business, but the education business."

On the other side are faculty, administrators, and interest groups, who argue that "distance learning" has the potential to undermine the learning process ­ a process they believe must be entirely face-to-face campus-based. Some of these critics see no educational value or potential whatsoever in new technologies and resist any move away from age-old, low-tech pedagogical approaches.

Even those in higher education who do embrace technology seem frequently to be motivated by a desire for quick cash (both access to investor capital and imagined future profits) or fear, rather than educational vision. These motivations have sometimes been evident in the rush by colleges and universities to spin-off for-profit companies to protect their programs in the fast-growing adult-education market, or to expand into new markets such as corporate training, or to do both.

What is less common, or perhaps simply receives less attention, is when an institution makes a careful, reasoned decision to embrace so-called "distance learning" technologies not just as an addition to its campus offerings, but as a way to strengthen the campus experience and better serve existing student populations. This linkage of Internet-based education with campus-based learning is where the great untapped educational potential of the Internet lies for colleges and universities.

At an overwhelming number of these institutions, the most profound educational moments will continue to occur in the classroom, in face-to-face interactions between students and faculty, and in what happens on residential campuses in the evening and on weekends. Yet the Internet can be a powerful force in strengthening these educational and social experiences. Students, who have increasingly grown up buying clothes, reading the news, chatting with friends, doing research, and applying to college on-line, will come to expect as much.

Just as they maintain their relationships both face-to-face and online, and just as they shop both at bricks and mortar stores and online commerce sites, college students will expect to experience their education both in person and online. And just as there is a time when emailing a friend makes sense and a time when seeing the friend in person makes sense, so too are there times when online education works and times when face-to-face interaction is superior. The competitive advantage of traditional campuses, the "old-school" schools, is that they can offer both.

Many faculty, given support and resources, come up with ingenious uses of the web that compliment the classroom experience. At Mount Holyoke, a biology professor and her students are using video microscopy (making time lapse movies with a video camera attached to a microscope) and posting their "movies" on the campus network. In addition to helping students gain an understanding of such cellular processes as division and locomotion, the videos have encouraged them to share their findings. Says one student: "When we work in the lab, we typically only get the chance to see our own work. Now I can hop on the Internet and take a look at my classmates' videos." And, she adds, she can "chat" online about lab experiences.

There are many possibilities for exploiting the power of technology and the Internet in combination with classroom-based education. Necessary lectures on basic, foundational concepts may be conveyed through streaming video over an intranet system so that students can easily repeat difficult or complex portions of the lecture (and go back to it at their convenience) and come to class prepared with questions and observations. The result? Time in class is more effectively utilized because of increased time spent in meaningful discussion.

Similarly, guest lecturers can be videotaped and simulcast on the Internet, drawing alumni, prospective students, and students studying abroad into campus life. Even years after the lecture, faculty may put the downloadable lecture on the campus intranet, along with the reading assignment for that day, for students to click on and watch.

In these ways, the campus-based classroom experience is strengthened, not threatened, by the integration of distance learning technologies. The challenge for those in leadership positions in academia is to go beyond the "Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom" model characterized by individual faculty initiative and create a sustained, strategic push toward an "e-campus" ­ a campus that harnesses the best attributes of a physical campus and the strengths of technology.

Creating an "e-campus" is more than just wiring dormitories for high-speed Internet access, equipping classrooms with the latest technology, or having pretty web pages aimed at external audiences. An "e-campus" uses technology to strengthen the residential, interactive nature of the entire college experience. Every activity ­ from course registration to financial aid processing to the taking of final exam ­ is critically evaluated and the question asked: Do technologies allow us to enhance the way we deliver this service or provide this academic experience to students?

This examination will force colleges to new levels of creativity and entrepreneurship. Many colleges do not currently have the expertise or resources to create an "e-campus." Consortial relationships, outsourcing, partnerships with for-profit providers, and well-conceived spin-outs of particular activities will all be increasingly common as institutions seek to leverage resources to maximum effect.

Colleges will have to push against existing boundaries and look outside their walls for ideas and inspiration. There are many lessons to be learned from the business world, where companies are finally beginning to recognize the competitive advantage of leveraging their physical locations through their online initiatives (so-called "clicks and mortar" or "clicks and bricks"). Many, such as Barnes & Noble, have learned the hard way that spinning off a new venture that simply copies a new entrant ­ rather than exploiting unique advantages derived from a combination of a physical and online presence ­ is not a winning strategy.

The self-examination that colleges and universities must undertake will not be easy, but the payoff is well worth it. The marriage of technology with traditional modes of learning will leave us with institutions that are more intimate, more residential, and more personal. Rather than making residential colleges obsolete, technology, and all that it enables, can help to further distinguish these institutions and make the American system of higher education, already the envy of the world, stronger than ever before.

Joanne V. Creighton is the president of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Phil Buchanan is a principal at the Parthenon Group, a strategic advising and principal investing firm based in Boston.