Executives take post-grad courses by long-distance computer link

Dr. Andrew Feenberg teaches a class in San Diego - but his students never show up.

Instead, they attend class by computer, from homes or offices all over the country and as far away as Caracas. As part of a newly formed leadership program, Dr. Feenberg's students - all top executives from the public and private sectors - are participating in a unique form of education by computer.

According to the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI), which runs the program, this experiment marks the first time ''computer teleconferencing'' has been used in higher education. Although participants meet for seminars once during each six months of the two-year program, the bulk of the learning occurs on computers.

Tuition for WBSI is not cheap - $10,750 a year. But this includes the price of an Apple computer - which the students take home with them and keep.

WBSI instructors lead course discussions and assignments on their computers, which are hooked up to a central computer at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Students log on to their own computers and join the class dialogue at their leisure - a plus, according to many students who say class-by-computer offers a flexibility they must have in their demanding executive schedules. Occasionally, members of the class ''meet'' for discussions on their computers at the same time. Tuition includes unlimited time to use the computer network.

''It's absolutely unique. We're exploring a way to relate that's never been done before,'' says Marvin Braude, a Los Angeles city councilman and member of WBSI's first class in its School of Management and Strategic Studies.

''It serves as a bouncing board for me, which gets me feedback from the others,'' he continues. ''I can type out an idea in the middle of the night, and know that I'm going to get an answer back from someone.''

Donald Michael, a WBSI instructor and one of the country's best-known futurists, says that because the program is less than a year old, ''we're still learning how to teach.'' Notes Dr. Feenberg: ''You can't write a book on the screen. But what you can do is have a discussion.''

There are drawbacks to computer classrooms, including the occasional tiffs and misunderstandings that can result from not having the face-to-face contact that helps the individual interpret what another is really trying to say. Developing the discipline to keep up with the course over an extended period of time could also be a problem.

However, Dr. Richard Farson, WBSI president, says that ''instead of discipline, using the computer has become an addiction. I can't pass by it without looking to see what messages I've gotten.''

The computer has proved to be a huge success, the WBSI president says. The program is ideal for busy executives. Companies can spare a top executive for the WBSI program, since he or she is absent only once every six months. And the executive doesn't have to make a transition back to the office - as often happens with an extended absence. Also, the executive is in a position to use what he's learning right away at the office, Dr. Farson explains.

''Originally we had planned a multimedia approach,'' he says. ''We had no idea how well the computer would work. . . . And we haven't even begun to explore this medium.''

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