"I know of but one single means of increasing the prosperity of a people that is infallible in practice that I believe one can count on in all countries as in all spots. This means is naught else but to increase the ease of communication between men . . ."
The Internet has the power to bridge this information chasm. The best universities and training programs can exist where ever the Internet exists. Virtual classrooms and laboratories can include people from Massachusetts to Oregon, Quebec to Antartica, Kenya to Cambodia. An electronic MIT or Oxford can exist at all locations in the world, raising the potential contribution to society to a level unparalleled by existing systems.
The Technology. The world now sees the Internet as a plethora of services. It began as electronic mail, extended to news groups, file transfer, textual web browsing, graphic web browsing, and is now pushing into 3-D world representations. The next step will be interactive virtual worlds, in which individuals not only perceive three dimensional data, but they interact with it and with others who are sharing that virtual space. From Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) we have progressed to the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) and Java, and will continue on to something like a Distributed Interactive Modeling Language. This will allow users to go beyond viewing virtual worlds created by others, to collaboratively creating worlds in real-time. Such an environment can be the electronic equivalent of the classrooms and laboratories that now serve a limited number of the brightest minds at traditional universities.
As the tools supporting this global network increase in number and power, people will experience the Internet as ubiquitously as they do mass media today. Both synchronous and asynchronous models of education will allow the combination of computers, televisions, video cameras, video games, video tape, e-mail, web browsing, telephone, and correspondence materials in support of a new teaching/training environment. Electronic information can be supplemented by tactile tools to assist in chemical, electrical, artistic, and manufacturing experiments and creations.
The Curriculum. Though all material on all subjects can not be exchanged electronically, many essential areas can be readily adapted to this medium. Academic subjects such a mathematics, physics, engineering, chemistry, and architecture seem to lend themselves well to the method. Remedial learning in computer and instructor assisted reading, mathematics, and business basics are very feasible. Safety training and equipment operations can be distributed electronically in much the same way they are handled via video tape and simulation today. The new medium, however, has the advantage of providing the most current information available and immediate feedback on performance, as opposed to aged video tapes from corporate libraries.
The ability to evaluate, measure, and certify the professional capabilities of people thus trained is essential if we are to maintain and increase the quality of services offered to the world. Evaluations of the learning process can still take the form of tests, essays, simulator performance measurements, and interactive questioning. Though these may insure the quality of understanding, the value of the virtual classroom hinges on the ability to earn degrees, diplomas, and certificates which are commercially and academically recognized. Without these, the virtual classroom will be little more than the 21st century equivalent of self-schooling from the local library. Though knowledge may be acquired, it is difficult to receive recognition and compensation for the effort.
The Benefits. The potential for overcoming personal barriers through Internet-based education is so great that this form of learning can not be shunned because of the difficulties it creates with respect to traditional methods. Millions of people face emotional barriers attributed to their lack of education, financial barriers hindering their ability to participate, and physical barriers as a result of their location or personal challenges. People who can be excluded in spite of their mental abilities could be included through the growth and development of new forms of education and certification.
Traditional institutions are supported by assets such as land, buildings, laboratories, offices, parking lots, and machinery - all of which represent significant costs that must be passed on to the students. A virtual university , on the other hand, requires considerably less: computer systems, networks, managers, instructors, and learning materials - much of which is currently available from commercial Internet providers for as little as $20 per month. An initial investment in basic computer equipment and monthly installments for access are at least an order of magnitude less expensive than today's university expenses.
The goal of a distributed virtual classroom, in both university and training programs, is to produce people that are better equipped to provide services to a society that needs them. The enhanced ability and productivity of the people and countries receiving a virtual education will provide increased wealth and stature for both. This is the primary incentive for taking advantage of the knowledge distribution potential of the Internet. Like television, it has the potential to totally change the level of education of society. Will that potential will be realized?
National Institute of Standards and Technology. 1994. Putting the Information Infrastructure to Work. Special Publication 857.
Rheingold, H. 1993. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Addisson-Wesley. Reading, MA.
Smith, R. D. 1995. Distributed Professional Education and the Internet. Proceedings of the 17th Interservice/Industry Training Systems and Education Conference. Albuquerque, NM.