February 7, 2007 9:15 AM PST

Universities register for virtual future

Universities register for virtual future SAN FRANCISCO--If you want to know what higher education will look like in a few years, you might ask Charles Reed, chancellor of the largest four-year university system in the United States.

As head of the California State University system--with 23 campuses, 46,000 employees and more than 400,000 students--Reed says he's worried about classroom space in the future because of, among other reasons, expanding enrollment.

Consequently, Reed said he envisions students becoming more like telecommuters. They might meet with faculty and peers one day a week on campus, and then use simulations, virtual worlds and downloaded information the rest of the week to complete coursework.

"It's not an either-or thing. We need the 'high touch,' but we need the high tech at the same time," Reed said Tuesday at Sun Microsystem's Worldwide Education and Research Conference here.

The three-day conference kicked off Tuesday to a packed hotel ballroom of roughly 400 attendees hailing from universities around the world. Sun devoted a large part of the day to selling educators on its open-source technology for classroom computing. Sun Chairman Scott McNealy himself promoted a range of Sun efforts, including Project Blackbox, which creates data centers packaged in stackable shipping containers, and Curriki.org, which focuses on creating free curriculum in the mold of Wikipedia.

"It's not an either-or thing. We need the 'high touch,' but we need the high tech at the same time."
--Charles Reed,
chancellor,
California State University

"Technology has to play a huge role in education. (It's) changed commerce...publishing...banking. It's got to change education big time," McNealy said during a keynote speech.

Virtual worlds are already beginning to change higher education, according to several educators.

For example, more than 70 universities have built island campuses in Second Life, according to Stuart Sim, CTO and chief architect of Moodlerooms, which builds structures in virtual worlds and offers course management software. Sim said his company is currently developing tools to help universities better manage students and courses delivered in Second Life. That way, universities can have an application to control adding or removing a student avatar to the island campus, he said. The project is dubbed Sloodle.com.

Gerri Sinclair, executive director of the master's degree program for digital media at the Great Northern Way Campus in Vancouver, Canada, said her group is building a Second Life virtual campus alongside its physical one. "Our students are digital natives, and they don't want to be reached in traditional ways. So we're creating a virtual campus as we're building our real campus," Sinclair said.

Jane Kagon, director of UCLA's Extension Department of Entertainment Studies and Performing Arts, also announced during the conference that the university has opened a Second Life island for its digital-film students.

"It's an interesting time" to be part of gaming, noted Chris Melissinos, Sun's chief gaming officer. "There's an opportunity to grab this technology and new modes of communication and use them for a greater purpose."

In that vein, Melissinos discussed Sun's Project Darkstar, which is designed to help developers of online games via server-side technology. With this technology, developers can create multiplayer online games that can be run on any game device, he said. Sun plans to demonstrate the technology at a game conference next month and will offer a free license for it to schools and universities, he said.

Still, there are downsides to mixing virtual worlds and education. For example, Sinclair said that her school held a seminar in Second Life and an avatar entered the room and began shooting at all the other avatars. "We didn't know if we should duck," she said. An administrator in the seminar left the room and figured out how to ban the offender.

Melissinos said Sun is working on open-source client-side software, called Project Wonderland, so developers can build applications on top of its server-side software. That presumably could solve security issues.

"We wouldn't do business in Second Life there because it is insecure. That (security is) necessary for education, too," Melissinos said.

Ultimately, Reed said, he cannot talk about where education is headed without talking about the future of technology because "it's shaping how we reach out to students and team (with) them in every way," he said.

The California State University system, for example, plans to finish in 2008 a new so-called common management system, which will combine financial information, human resources and student services for all 23 campuses on one network. It will let students and faculty access information from any location.

CSU also has systems in place for admission applications, teacher training and college prep tools. Reed said that schools' biggest challenges are in keeping costs down, getting teachers and students linked on the systems, updating outdated technology and keeping the system secure. For example, he said CSU gets as many as 100,000 hits a day from hackers trying to access personal, financial data on students and faculty in its system.

"Many of the challenges we face today," he said, "are similar to ones the rest of the country's universities will face in the next 8 to 10 years."

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5 comments

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"Technology has to play a huge role in education."
Someone, I feel, is taking the ....

Technology already HAS played a huge role in education.

Now instead of at least learning to read when they do their home copying assignments (you know, when kids used to copy the contents of library books instead of doing their homework) they now skip that step and simply cut and paste.

Instead of wasting their time daydreaming or throwing things at teachers, they now waste their time watching their teacher fumble with technology or sift through a gagillion useless Google hits on the subject they thought they were teaching.

Yes technology has made math geniuses of every checkout person - you know the sort of math savant that can press all those colorful buttons but can't work out why you know they have short changed you - or why you gave them $10.09 when the checkout PC only asked for $9.09 (then proceed to give you your 9 cents back before handing over another 91).

Yes thanks to technology my kids will become Leatherworking graduates in World of Warcraft, and have some truly job or college application rejecting profiles on Myspace.

Still you never know - one day these kids will be our future teachers, and while they won't know jack about say, anything worthwhile, they will be able to show the kids how to sync their MP4 players or post videos of school fights on anonymous Web 2.0 profiles.
Posted by ajbright (447 comments )
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WOOSH - There goes the point you missed
While there are many examples of people using technology as a crutch, there are also many opportunities to use new technologies, specifically game technologies, to teach and communicate more effectively. This does not mean that you stop teaching the fundamentals but, rather, find new modes of teaching that work better for a wide variety of people. The teacher fumbling through the technology is not the fault of the student, how can you put that on them? And more and more teachers are entering the educational system who can use these new technologies effectively so the problem will resolve itself over time.

No offense, but you sound like the typical pre-home computer parent who doesn't "get it", and therefore it must have no value. Since you use a computer, and did so to post your response, do you use the spell checker, calculator, etc. for any of your work? If so, why? Go pull out the slide rule, Oxford pocket dictionary, paper ledger and college ruled paper and do your work that way.

Instead of painting the future as a bleak wasteland of useless information and tools that will turn our kids into dullards, how about trying to see some of the positive tools and technologies that will help our kids to learn more, understand our world better and become more productive members of society. Hell, I remember clerks at local stores growing up who could not calculate correct change long before calculators were available to the public. Stupid people have been around long before computers ever existed.
Posted by ProfessorFry (5 comments )
Link Flag
Online Education Misses the Point of Higher Education
Being of a generation just graduating in the last year, I believe that the point of going to a university is being over looked.

Anyone would agree that a four year degree is of great value into todays society. I have taken part in online classes and understand their value. They remove time constraints giving people flexibility to live their lives as they wish. This is great for parents and working professionals.

The problem is that people who choose to attend a online university miss out on the value of a traditional undergraduate education. A traditional university builds a culture that most often focuses on building social skills, such as the ability to communicate and work as a team.

Unfortunately students who take advantage of online degrees (or take a balk of their classes online) do not necessarily acquire these social skills through their educational environment. Typing on a message on and online forum, chatting with an instructor, sending out group emails, or even meeting people in a virtual world does not teach you how to interact with people within an office environment. Employers want people that can gather in meeting rooms, speak their ideas clearly, and have some professional grace.

If I were an employer hiring a recent graduate for a professional position, I would put more value a traditional four year college degree over a four year online degree. I would go as far to place more value on a two technical degree over a four year online degree. Unless of course the individual had strong work background to support their online degree.
Posted by Cal0001 (4 comments )
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Workplace changes
I think it is worth noting that the office is changing.

Colleges are responsible for preparing undergrads for what the world will be like for them. If a college were to fall behind on the times and fail to embrace distance learning it would result in graduates who will not be able to participate in the new workplace.

I think that the colleges who are creating an online presence are doing a service to their students, providing them with an environment that many companies are beginning to use as well.

Just imagine being a business student having never used Second Life, or having only informally chatted with friends online, to all of a sudden be expected to submit reports online or offer presentations in a virtual environment.

Times change, and so must these institutions. Luckily, many have been changing. Hopefully the trend will continue as we enter a new world, a different world, where maybe the skills we use to get ahead will require a different type of education.

What is most important after all is that information gets across. If technology allows that information to flow more freely for everyone, that in my opinion, it is a progress.
Posted by ShinobiKoushaku (5 comments )
Link Flag
Great Opportunities
I teach at a large state university in the midwest, and I know that there is currently a move to add more online courses to the offerings in my department. I agree with the 'misses the point' responder to an extent. There is something about being in a university environment that adds greatly to the learning experience. I know that from my own undergraduate experience (many years ago, I might add). However, as I am now a doctoral student, a wife and mother, and much, much older, I also have experienced benefit from online courses. I agree that the best alternative might be a blended approach. However, online teaching is not (should not be) just posting of notes on a website. The use of online teaching creates the need for educators to develop and modify curriculum that is appropriate for the online environment.
Posted by kkdenni (1 comment )
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