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Larson testifies on education via web

"The most exciting thing about teaching and learning on the Internet is not distance learning, but the possibility to create entirely new learning environments for students," Professor Richard C. Larson told the House Committee on Science on Monday, May 8. Professor Larson heads MIT's distance learning operation, the Center for Advanced Educational Services (CAES).

An invited panel of four presented their views on "The Internet, Distance Learning and the Future of the Research University." Professor Larson was especially enthusiastic about web-based tutors for students. One at MIT is called PIVoT -- Physics Interactive Video Tutor. This brings the physics professor to the desktop in an environment that simulates a one-on-one office-hours conversation that the student might have with the professor.

"The Internet technology effectively increases by an order of magnitude the effective face-to-face communication between student and teacher," Dr. Larson said.

"The Internet is opening many new opportunities for learning -- opportunities that should be embraced by research universities," he continued. "Thanks to the Internet, the college or university that an 18-year-old selects can be viewed as the lifetime provider of educational services. Lifelong education is now no longer a luxury, but a necessity. The Internet provides the inexpensive distribution for that education any time, anywhere. Universities now must step up to the plate and offer educational services to their alumni."

Dr. Larson predicted that colleges and universities will accelerate their importing and exporting of courses and educational content, thereby creating vast interinstitutional marketplaces of educational products and services.

"Following recent trends, students at any university may be taking courses not only from that university but also from others, using the Internet to 'cross-register' electronically. Were this to occur on a wide scale, a method of cross payments would evolve among cooperating institutions, making education similar to free trade between nations. The risk to a college or university, analogous to international free trade, is a significant balance-of-payments deficit."

Dr. Larson concluded his testimony recommending priorities for federal funding: "(1) support more research on technology-enabled education, focusing on what works and what doesn't work; (2) encourage and support novel and compelling learning networks between cooperating institutions of higher education; (3) examine the federal role in the support of lifelong learning, leading to actions that would encourage the creation of a learning society; (4) support efforts to narrow or eradicate the 'digital divide.'"

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 10, 2000.

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