San Francisco — A number of people today believe that computer technology is creating the potential for radical new departures in the world of education. One of these is Ronald F. Gordon, and he has put his money where his conviction is. A trim man with a relaxed yet energetic air and a full beard, Mr. Gordon is a philosopher-turned-Silicon Valley entrepreneur. It was under his tutelage that Atari skyrocketed to national prominence for its pioneering of the video game. Adding to his reputation was the fact that he left Atari before the company fell on hard times. But several companies and fortunes later, Gordon became discontented with the high-tech scene.
``I've been designing . . . products for computers for a long time. But I'm more interested in what you can do with computers, what their benefits are,'' Gordon explains. And he doesn't see much benefit to most people in the direction the computer industry has been taking.
For the past three years, however, the inventor has been working on something he feels will give people a reason for bringing computers home: an electronic university. For just over a year Gordon's company, TeleLearning Systems Inc., has been offering courses that people take using their computers. About 14,000 have signed up for TeleLearning classes, a fraction of the number Gordon expects.
The reason for the low numbers so far is ``we just haven't had what people really want.'' They want to take courses that count for credit toward degrees, Gordon explains.
TeleLearning's early emphasis was on personal-improvement courses: computer literacy, memory training, vocabulary building, gardening, nutrition, and the like. There were also a couple of dozen courses for credit. Early this year, however, TeleLearning shifted gears. It increased the number of credit courses available from 22 to more than 100. It now offers seven degree programs: associate and bachelor's degrees in arts and business, along with three master's of business administration degrees, all issued by City University in Bellevue, Wash.
Michael Pastore, president of City University, is enthusiastic about the concept. ``There is no question in my mind that using microcomputers is the wave of the future,'' he comments. ``And it fits in with the people we are working with.''
According to Dr. Pastore, his private nonprofit institution is the largest business school in the Pacific Northwest and offers night and weekend classes to people throughout the region. The university is a member of the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges and the Council on Post-Secondary Education. Pastore says the school's credits are readily accepted by other schools. Taking a course electronically falls somewhere between enrolling in a correspondence course and signing up for a traditional class. Home study is supplemented by computer drills. Lessons are prepared and sent to instructors by connecting the computer to the telephone line, rather than by mail. Teachers have ``office hours'' -- times when they are available to communicate directly over the computer with students.
Students taking one of these degree programs are required to pass ``sealed tests'' administered by local libraries or schools, Pastore explains.
``The computer-aided instruction portion of the course, on disk, is not the most important part,'' Gordon points out. ``It is critical to have live interaction with the instructor so the course can be tailored to the needs and the pace of the student. The key is to personalize it so it motivates the students.''
Two students taking classes on the system -- Pat Elston, a computer supervisor at Pacific Telephone in California, and Robert Walker, a logistics supervisor at Boeing's Vertol division in Pennsylvania -- rate the system as definitely worthwhile. Ms. Elston is taking ``Moonlighting With Your Micro''; Mr. Walker is brushing up his writing skills. Both cite busy schedules as a key reason for going the computer route.
``I was taking courses at [a local college], but my schedule just got too hectic,'' Elston says.
Walker's job demands considerable travel, which makes it difficult for him to attend regular classes. ``I'm enjoying it,'' Walker says. ``I think it's a great concept and I would like to see it expanded.''
Elston adds, ``Whenever I send a lesson back, the response I get is very individualized, so I know someone is paying attention to what I am doing.''
Both students feel the cost of the courses is reasonable. For $175 a person gets a modem, the device that connects a computer to the phone line, and software so that an Apple, IBM, or Commodore computer can communicate with the TeleLearning system. Individual courses cost $45 to $150 more. Walker and Elston say they intend to take more courses by computer.
Gordon reports that completion rates on the courses have been running 65 percent.
Like learning by computer, teaching by computer is a novel experience. As with anything new, ``there is a period of confusion,'' comments Miriam Ylvisakr, who teaches creative writing on the system. ``With the computer it seems like there are more things to go wrong. But it is very interesting. It is quite good for those who want to learn on their own.''
This view is seconded by Robert Gardner, who teaches time management courses at the University of California, Berkeley, and for TeleLearning: ``On the computer, the opportunities to address the needs of the individual are much greater than in a classroom with 30 to 40 students. Individual self-development is greater. However, it does not teach the capability to work with other people. . . .''
Although neither of the teachers has been overwhelmed with electronic students so far, both seem satisfied with their experience. Mr. Gardner, in fact, argues that computer technology will be instrumental in fusing two types of learning that, historically, have been separate: education and training. ``Students were taught abstract knowledge. Then they were trained to apply that knowledge to their work and their personal lives,'' He points out. But ``the age of learning for learning's sake is passing. In the future, I don't think people will learn something unless they can use it in their lives.''
Even if people prefer the traditional methods of getting a degree, economics may ultimately force many people to take the electronic-university route. The cost of putting children through college is ``getting to the point of being ridiculous,'' Boeing's Walker points out. Computer-aided instruction may be the only way many students in the future can obtain a college degree, he adds.