The lecture heard around the e-world
'We wanted to push the envelope rather than be pushed. It's exciting, but there's a lot at stake, so we've done the dry run to make sure everything is working as planned.'
In an experiment designed to push the envelope of electronic learning, the Toronto-born professor of finance will be seen and heard by MBA students on five continents through the wonder of video-streaming technology and the Internet.
E-learning is a buzzword for educators everywhere, but today's Duke initiative is believed to be the first to offer an actual credit course, replete with real-time, multi-camera visuals, on the Web.
To broaden appeal, Duke's highly regarded Fuqua School of Business at Durham, N.C., has waived its usual admission requirements, thus making the course available for a fee to students from rival business schools and working professionals who want to freshen their knowledge.
"We wanted to push the envelope rather than be pushed," says Harvey, a leading economist who specializes in portfolio management and global-risk strategies for investments. "It's exciting, but there's a lot at stake, so we've done the dry run to make sure everything is working as planned."
The course in question, Global Asset Allocation and Stock Selection, is one of several highly specialized niche electives offered among Duke's second-year MBA curriculum. Harvey expects some 40 students to be in his high-tech classroom this morning, with another 100 working professionals from throughout North America, Europe and as far away as Australia attending via the Web.
Each of the 12 lectures will be Webcast by San Francisco-based Digital Island through its high-bandwidth global network. The course will be archived at different compressions, giving access to students with comparatively slow 56K modem technology.
Harvey says his online students, including investment executives from Goldman Sachs, Barclays and the California State Pension Plan, comprise mostly high-powered working professionals "who want specialized knowledge without having to go for the whole degree."
But in the larger scheme, Harvey and other academics say evolving technology may force universities to embrace the concept of boutique education, in which students might mix and match courses from a variety of schools into a customized degree program.
The caveat, educators maintain, is that one-way technology thus far cannot replicate the two-way communication necessary for total learning.
"What Duke is doing is aggressive and impressive. But the problem remains that while the professor can talk to the world, the world can't talk to the professor," says Jack Gorrie, the University of Toronto provost's adviser on information technology.
Several Canadian schools have experimented with video-streaming, says Gorrie, but most are taking "a more conservative approach where the classroom experience is supplemented by technology.
"I'd describe Duke University as the bleeding edge of the wedge. It's a kind of branding. They want their name thought of as the visionary leader in the technology. We're seeing the same thing developing at the Columbias, the Stanfords and the Berkeleys as well.
"Most Canadian schools are taking a more conservative approach. We don't want to be the ones with bloodied noses. But at the same time, we are developing our technologies to enable us to move into distance learning fairly quickly if that time comes."
Henry Jacek, president of the 11,000-member Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, agrees.
"I don't think the Canadian schools are being as aggressive as the American schools on this front," says Jacek.
"What Duke is doing makes sense, particularly for the business world. And for the idea of lifelong learning, as an alternative for someone already established in their career who wants to study more but can't take the time to physically return to school."
Jacek, a political science professor at Hamilton's McMaster University, says virtually all his students seek in-person contact at some point during any given semester, often with concerns that might easily be dealt with via telephone or e-mail.
"They don't feel they're really interacting with me unless I'm half a metre from their nose," he says.
"Then they feel they're really getting their money's worth."
Harvey, who is also a member of the board of directors of Torstar, The Star's parent corporation, acknowledges that even though his students can communicate by e-mail,the tactile benefit of face-to-face discussion is an element in education that e-learning will never completely replace.
"Interaction is crucial. But at the same time, I attended both U of T and York University, and I can remember sitting in lecture halls at certain times with hundreds of students. The experience wasn't exactly one-on-one," he says.
And just how will e-learning change the dynamic of the actual classroom experience?
For starters, Harvey expects all 40 of his in-the-flesh MBA students will show up on time this morning.
"They know that someone who could potentially be their future employer might be watching," he says.
"I'm confident that these students are going to be fully prepared for each lecture. A number of my electronic enrollees are people from top firms who would easily qualify as guest lecturers.
"So when somebody speaks up, I'm sure whatever they have to say is going to be well thought out."
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