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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Basic Research Subcommittee of the Committee on Science Hearing on The Internet, Distance Learning & the Future of the Research University

May 9, 2000

On May 9, 2000, the Basic Research Subcommittee of the Committee on Science held a hearing on The Internet, Distance Learning & the Future of the Research University.

Witnesses were: Dr. Nils Hasselmo, President, American Association of Universities; Professor Richard Larson, Director, Center for Advanced Educational Services, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Ms. Carol Vallone, Chief Executive Office & President, WebCT, Inc.; and Dr. James Duderstadt, Director, Millenium Project, University of Michigan.

They examined the potential impact of the growth of Internet-based distance learning on our nation's education system, particularly its impact on the country's research universities. It also focused on what should be the response of science funding agencies, and particularly the National Science Foundation.

Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) opened the hearing by stating that some people have suggested that universities are spending too much money on distance learning. He noted that others simply believe that distance learning is a poor substitute for traditional classroom learning. He also was interested in learning how Internet-based education could improve our nation's K-12 science and math programs and whether or not the growth of distance learning may help attract more women and minorities to the sciences.

The panelists agreed that Web-based and Web-enhanced courses would allow students to complete coursework without being on campus for four years and that tuition costs can be cut by at least two thirds. Distance learning is suited to all academic disciplines and can improve the quality of teaching. Students seem more willing to participate in on-line courses as opposed to a classroom setting. The panelists noted that K-12 science and math curriculums can be improved because the students will be able to receive additional help at the click of a button.

One of the disadvantages of distance learning is that the digital divide will intensify the differences in opportunities between those who have online access and those who don't. They believe the federal government can support efforts to narrow or eliminate the digital divide.

The panelists also noted the National Science Foundation is responding well to rapidly changing times and the federal government should continue pilot programs on distance learning, provide computers and Internet access to all teachers, and develop assessment models. Copyright laws and data base protection legislation also should be revised for distance learning.