All discussion of distance education these days invariably turns into a discussion of technology, an endless meditation on the wonders of computer-mediated instruction. Identified with a revolution in technology, distance education has thereby assumed the aura of innovation and the appearance of a revolution itself, a bold departure from tradition, a signal step toward a preordained and radically transformed higher educational future. In the face of such a seemingly inexorable technology-driven destiny and the seductive enchantment of technological transcendence, skeptics are silenced and all questions are begged. But we pay a price for this technological fetishism, which so dominates and delimits discussion. For it prevents us from perceiving the more fundamental significance of today’s drive for distance education, which, at bottom, is not really about technology, nor is it anything new. We have been here before
Is the Internet the springboard which will take universities into a new age, or a threat to their existence? Will dotcom degrees create new opportunities for those previously excluded, or lead them into a digital dead-end? From UCLA to Columbia, digital technologies have brought about rapid and sweeping changes in the life of the university—changes which will have momentous effects in the decade ahead.
Recent events at two large North American universities signal dramatically that we have entered a new era in higher education, one which is rapidly drawing the halls of academe into the age of automation. In mid-summer the UCLA administration launched its historic “Instructional Enhancement Initiative” requiring computer web sites for all of its arts and sciences courses by the start of the fall term, the first time that a major university has made mandatory the use of computer telecommunications technology in the delivery of higher education. In partnership with several private corporations (including the Times Mirror Company, parent of the Los Angeles Times), moreover, UCLA has spawned its own for-profit company, headed by a former UCLA vice chancellor, to peddle online education (the Home Education Network)