Technology This governor alarmed professors 22 years ago with a ‘disturbing’ vision for distance learning in 2020 — here’s what he says today
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A longtime contact of mine recently emailed a New York Times article from June 18, 1998:Viewed through the lens of 2020, the headline was worthy of The Onion. But it got even better.
“About 850 professors at the University of Washington have signed an open letter to Gov. Gary Locke to say they are worried about the enthusiasm he and one of his advisers are showing for instruction via CD-ROM’s and the Internet,” the story read.
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And here’s the kicker: This controversy focused on a group called the “2020 Commission,” created by Locke in 1998 to set a vision for higher education in some far-off year when, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, virtual classes would become a reality for professors and students around the world, like it or not.
If any story deserves revisiting right now, it’s this one.
So I got in touch with Locke, who was Washington state’s 21st governor from 1997–2005 before serving as U.S. Secretary of Commerce and later U.S. Ambassador to China during the Obama administration. It’s an especially timely topic right now for him, asin the Seattle area.
On this l episode of the GeekWire Podcast, we look back at a pivotal debate over online education, more than two decades ago, and consider the implications for the very different world in which we’re living and learning today.
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With the advantage of 22 years of hindsight, we both chuckled over the story’s first sentence. But beyond that, Locke was candid in acknowledging that the professors had a point.
“I’ve always been a major proponent of that personal interaction between the faculty and the students,” he said. “Clearly using technology can make it easier for both faculty and students. But there’s still no substitute for that human interaction.”
So what caused the controversy? Looking back, it was a speech delivered by Locke to some of the state’s top high-school students in April of that same year.
Locke called for “a society that values competence rather than educational brand names,” and an approach that emphasizes lifelong learning rather than “prestige, or academic pedigree.” He continued, “If you can show a prospective employer that you can produce sophisticated computer graphics, it won’t matter whether you learned it at a prestigious art school or on a computer in your garage.”
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That was the spark that lit the fire. An open letter signed by more than 900 University of Washington professors warned that Locke “made the surprising claim that the research university and its national prestige are *irrelevant* to a coming “Information Age” in which Washingtonians will simply buy their “knowledge” in “bite-sized” chunks through private technology.”
Galya Diment, a professor of Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of Washington, was president of the UW chapter of the American Association of University Professors at the time.
“Part of it was concern about our jobs, because we felt that it was being done as a budget-cutting ploy, but the whole notion of not having in-person communication with the students was horrifying,” she said this week. “Actually, looking ahead to where we are today, I think it’s the opposite situation. Now, you don’t have to convince anyone that it’s much worse than in-person teaching. You just have to convince people that, when necessary, it is good enough. And that’s a really interesting reversal of the argument.”
As an example of the pitfalls of technology, she pointed to an anecdote that has circulated on social media, about a professor who gave an entire lecture on mute and didn’t notice the more than 200 comments from the students telling him that his audio was off.
The final report from the 2020 Commission didn’t go as far as the professors feared. One of its recommendations, for example, was to designate “a statewide coordinator who will make distance education easy to use.”
Locke pointed out this week that the focus of the commission went beyond distance education, to focus on funding. But his larger point about virtual education is that there is a need for technology to extend the reach of education, and also a critical role for in-person instruction to further enrich the experience of learning.
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