Lionel Baldwin has glimpsed the future of graduate education, and it is radically different from the past. ''It's going to be a brave new world,'' predicts Dr. Baldwin, dean of engineering at Colorado State University, who has become a primary agent in the transformation of the hallowed halls of academe through the use of telecommunications.
At the behest of a consortia of 24 of the nation's leading engineering schools, Dean Baldwin is forming a new type of educational institution. Christened the National Technological University (NTU) this new university will not have ivy-covered buildings or quaint traditions. Instead, it will be an almost invisible college: an electronic network using satellites, videotape machines, and computers, linking faculty at some of the nation's most prestigious engineering schools with thousands of working engineers.
The new university will be accepting a small number of students next fall. Incorporation papers are currently being drawn up. And within the next few months, Dr. Baldwin expects to have signed up six to ten universities. It will take another year to gear up for full-scale, national operations.
''NTU could become the prototype of a new class of educational institution,'' says Bruce Chaloux, coordinator of Project ALLTEL, a group set up by the Council on Post-Secondary Education and the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association to study the impact of new information technology on higher education.
The new university represents a technological response to the nation's shortage of qualified engineers. The American Electronic Association has estimated that from 1981 to 1985 US demand for electrical engineers in the computer field will amount to almost three times the number of graduates in this field. The fact that Japan is producing three times as many engineers per capita as the United States has raised serious concern about America's ability to compete in the future.
The National Technological University is meant to provide advanced study for the engineering graduates who are snapped up by industry after completing only their baccalaureate degrees. It will attempt to update these engineers on the developments in various fields, a function that graduate school may have served more fully in the past. In 1976, for instance, 40 percent of the engineers who graduated with bachelor's degrees went on to get master's degrees; today less than 30 percent are investing the extra year necessary to specialize in an area.
NTU has its origins in the regional instructional television systems developed by several dozen universities since the 1960s. These use television, videotapes, and other methods to allow students near a university to take classes for credit without returning to the campus. In 1976 schools banded together to form the Association for Media-Based Continuing Education for Engineers. It is this group which is forming the new university.
While the existing TV systems have proved successful, they have some limitations that NTU is designed to surmount. First, only about half the engineers in the US live and work within reach of existing systems. Satellite distribution will enable NTU's outreach to be nationwide. Second, transferring academic credits when an engineer moves to a new job can prove difficult. NTU will facilitate transfer among participating institutions.
''Some people have even refused a promotion because of this problem,'' says Frank Burris, manager of engineering education at the RCA Corporation. RCA supports the NTU idea along with IBM, Westinghouse, and Hewlett-Packard. ''If it works as it is supposed to, we perceive NTU as improving our efforts to maintain the technical viability of our work force, helping us recruit and maintain technical people, and giving us access to faculty at leading schools which we can't get any other way,'' Mr. Burris says.
The new university does face a number of knotty problems. Project ALLTEL is trying to solve some of them. This project has two basic purposes, according to Mr. Chaloux. One is to examine and try to overcome the institutional barriers to the formation of operations like NTU. The other is to develop quidelines to ensure that telecommunication colleges provide top-notch education.
The major barrier appears to be state regulation. Most states have traditional standards which don't fit an operation like NTU, Chaloux says. In many states NTU's only physical presence will be its videotapes and course materials. So there is a question about the authority of states to regulate the university. Several have nonetheless declared that they intend to apply their standards, regardless of the form the university takes.
A related problem is a matter of turf. What will happen if NTU threatens an engineering program at a state university? State regulators, who have responsibility to protect state institutions, may react defensively.
This problem, however, may not be so acute in the engineering field, where demand outstrips supply. ''But what about when somebody sets up a National Business University, and starts offering MBAs?'' Chaloux asks. Dean Baldwin suggests one solution: to make tuitions high.
On the question of quality, he observes: ''Our history gives us ample warning about what could happen as unscrupulous entrepreneurs see an opportunity to make a profit by playing on people's desire for credentials. In the 1960s, when institutions moved off campus and then out of state, the laws and regulations could not cope with the situation. As a result, we saw a number of bogus diploma mills spring up,'' he points out.
Thus Project ALLTEL will produce guidelines to help regulators spot this problem if it appears in new technological garb.
Currently no one sees telecommunications-based education replacing the traditional undergraduate university. Full-time students have exhibited a clear dislike for audiovisual methods. Instead, experts foresee these methods being limited to the area of graduate study.
As the price of telecommunications equipment drops and home computers spread, more and more adults will take graduate courses in their homes or at their jobs, those involved predict. ''I think the flexibility and convenience of this approach will attract large numbers of adults back to school,'' Chaloux says.