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Web offers opportunities, risks for MIT, panel says

The World Wide Web and similar advanced technologies offer vast opportunities for new directions in higher education, but also carry some risks, according to the Committee on Education Via Advanced Technologies (EVAT).

The committee was formed in response to President Charles M. Vest's request that an ad hoc panel explore opportunities for MIT involving such technologies as the Internet, CD-ROMs, hypertext, hypermedia, multimedia, personal portable communication, personal portable computation and interactive television.

The Committee has issued its final report on the Web, where it can be found at .

The report is designed to be read on the Web and has links to other documents, including a link which can allow the "reader" to hear an audio recording of the voice of the late aviatrix Amelia Earhart (in the Media subsection of the section entitled World Wide Web).

The committee, chaired by Professor Paul L. Penfield, Jr., has concluded that technologies such as the Web even pose the question: "Can MIT Remain a Residential University?"

"Many believe that MIT should not change its major character as a leading residential university simply because of technologies such as the Web," the committee writes. "Another view is that these technologies should supplement what we currently do, they should allow us to teach existing material in new ways, and they should help us teach brand-new material using resources not otherwise available. At the same time they can allow us to deliver educational services to others provided that there is a natural reason for their preferring MIT to other universities."

The committee adds, "The conduct of scholarly research is already changing, as distance collaboration is becoming easier. It is entirely possible that the future of higher education will not resemble the brick-and-mortar, residential model of today.

"If distance education is successful, students at Harvard and Wellesley are not the only ones who will cross-register in MIT subjects, and conversely MIT students will be able to take courses from around the world. The best lecturer in some topic (e.g., freshman calculus) can be `delivered' anywhere on the planet by the new technologies, and it is possible that a small, elite group of super educators in the new mold will emerge as `professors of choice' world wide.

"Will these people be MIT faculty? We may be in for a battle for educational market share and economic shakeouts and consolidations similar to what happens in the commercial sector (e.g., agriculture in the past century and banking in the next few years).

"The risks to MIT are real, as they are for every university. It is true that the special character of MIT may make us able to postpone deliberate action longer than some other universities. However, we do not have the luxury of deciding whether to participate in the revolution. It is already upon us. We must face the future brought about by these new technologies with a rational understanding of both its risks and its opportunities.

Other committee recommendations include:

  • Taking some short-range actions to insure that all participants in the educational mission have convenient access to the World Wide Web, and an opportunity to use it as a routine part of daily life. It also recommended that a regular faculty committee be charged with oversight of academic computing.
  • Several medium-range actions such as a high-level Institute-wide competition for support of technology-related curriculum development. It suggests a specific set of initiatives in distance education, designed to gain experience, and advocates a program of electronic connectivity for alumni/ae. The panel also recommends procedures by which all MIT subjects make at least administrative use of the Web. Finally, it advocates development of a variety of administrative uses of the Web.
  • Making long-range studies of the opportunities and risks associated with new educational markets, as enabled by advanced technologies. The most plausible such new markets are MIT's own alumni/ae and bright high school seniors.

The committee does not recommend that the report be read only from the printed pages, since readers will miss the hyperlinks to other pages, both inside and outside the report. However, those who don't have access to the Web or who wish a printed copy may ask the EVAT Committee support staff (Vera Sayzew, x3-4624, or ) for a paper copy or a copy on floppy disk for Macintosh and Windows computers. The disk explains how to view the report and, if you need a Web browser, how to get one.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 30, 1995.

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