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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #88      A Publication of The Nature Institute        April 16, 1999
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NETFUTURE is a reader-supported publication.
    Quotes and Provocations
       How Compelling is Distance Education?
       Couch Potatoes Feeling Oppressed at M.I.T.
       The ATM as Commercial Television
    Notes on Health and Medicine (Stephen L. Talbott)
       Midwives, placebos, and healing the whole person
    About this newsletter
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    How Compelling is Distance Education?
    The dropout rate for Internet-based, distance education classes is said to
    be 32 percent; the conventional classroom rate is 4 percent.  Under the
    most obvious interpretation, those are dramatic figures.
    Back in the days when I was in school, the most common reason for high
    dropout rates in particular classes was, as near as I could tell, lousy
    teachers.  The educational experience in those classes simply wasn't
    compelling enough to hold students.  The lousy-teacher explanation,
    however, can hardly explain the problem with distance education, since
    these online teachers will surely be above average in the sense that
    they're innovative, energetic, up-to-date, and adaptive.  If they suffer
    dropout rates 800 percent of normal, then we ought to look at the
    educational limitations of the medium they've chosen.
    That figure, it seems to me, may be the best and most direct "hard number"
    we now have regarding the educational potentials of distance education.
    Of course, as I like to point out, such numbers always require
    interpretation; they must be brought into one or another context, which
    will in turn determine the significance of the numbers -- a simple truth
    that is lost sight of amazingly often.  But the burden in this case is
    clearly on the distance education enthusiasts to do some fast
    contextualizing footwork if they would find any encouragement in this
    Actually, I suspect that the real situation is much worse than indicated
    above.  Someone should look at how many of the existing 26,000 online
    courses are about using computers and the Net, or about cyberculture.  The
    percentage is likely to be considerable, and if there is any place
    distance education should work, it is in teaching these "wired" subjects.
    The online dropout rate stands to be much higher once you separate out the
    Net-focused courses and look at the use of the Net in teaching the core
    The  figures given here, by the way, come from one of the 300 studies
    reviewed by the nonprofit Institute for Higher Education Policy in
    Washington, D.C.  In a repor