On Saturday nights at 11 p.m. in Landcaster, Calif., Ramon Hernandez props his feet on his family room coffee table and tunes his TV to cable channel 12. The program: ``ED 581; Human Relations in the School.'' Three times a week on the island of North Haven off the rocky coast of Maine, Belinda Pendleton drives a mile to the local community school for her 4 p.m. TV course in social services.
At 6 p.m., three days a week, Elizabeth Karl stays late at her job in Tampa, Fla. She switches on the TV for a one-hour course entitled ``The Brain.''
WELCOME to the new world of higher education where commuting is pass'e and the terms ``ivory tower'' and ``couch potato'' are taking on new meanings. More and more, across the United States, college students - young and old - are opting to let technology instead of people transport information. In a sense, microwave, satellite, and cable TV transmissions are replacing the car, the classroom, and the dormitory.
``In the time it used to take me to drive to campus, park, go in and sit down, I am literally through with class here in my living room,'' says Mr. Hernandez, a sixth-grade teacher and father of nine. To qualify for a higher salary, he is seeking 10 credit hours from the University of Colorado, one of 14 universities featured on a cable TV network known as ``Mind Extension University.'' Devoted solely to education via distance learning, MEU offers undergraduate and graduate telecourses over 150 cable systems nationwide including - as of September - an accredited master of business administration degree.
``I don't want to leave the island but I want to get a degree,'' says 40-year-old Ms. Pendleton, who is seeking a two-year degree from the Community College of Maine. Since Maine ranked 50th among states in the percentage of adults participating in higher education, a full-scale planning effort was launched last fall, resulting in transmission of 36 courses to more than 2,500 students in 47 locations. Because two-thirds of the populace live beyond reasonable commuting distance, and faculty are reluctant to teach in remote areas, the Maine system is designed to be interactive. Students take their courses ``live'' via cable and can talk with their professors over two-way audio hookups.
At the University of South Florida (USF), Ms. Karl's courses are broadcast live twice a week over ITFS (instructional television, fixed service) airwaves to receiving monitors in homes, hospitals, even prisons. One key site includes two-way video, meaning that the professor can actually see the students at their remote location. And the 3,000-plus students take courses generated not only by university faculty, but also by independent producers.
One top producer is the Annenberg/ CPB project, which covers the entire undergraduate curriculum from humanities and social sciences to natural sciences and mathematics. Formats vary: Some use video, others audio, still others use computers. All are keyed to newly created or specially selected texts and study guides.
Although telecourses have been around since the beginning of television 30 years ago, colleges and universities didn't begin producing their own until the mid-1970s. The '80s brought an explosion of alternative instructional delivery with the lower costs of cable television, fiber optics, microwave, slow-scan TV, satellites, and micro-computer networks.
``The real reason this is exploding now is that, for the first time, the equipment is both inexpensive enough and powerful enough,'' says George Connick, president of the University of Maine at Augusta.
At a time when almost half the enrollment in higher education is part-time students, location and convenience are increasingly paramount, according to Kay Kohl, executive director of the National University Continuing Education Association. ``That makes TV appealing.'' Not that telecourses are easy - most require textbooks, workbooks, frequent exams, and written assignments.
DOES all this mean the beginning of the end of the traditional university?
``No, but it means, or should mean, the end of the mammoth building boom based on the notion that students and faculty must aggregate at one location,'' says Mr. Connick. He sees the advent of a major structural change in the delivery of education across the entire spectrum from kindergarten through college - both within schools and between sites - brought about by new TV technology.
``It is the old concept that will be constantly challenged and may even be replaced by 2001 with networks of staging areas, rather than campuses,'' says Connick.
Peter Dirr, executive director of the Annenberg/CPB Project, says the growth of distance learning in higher education is hard to gauge because the field is changing so rapidly. Nationwide enrollment in TV-taught courses was 500,000 in 1983; today the figure is 650,000.
Whether or not distance learning is equal to traditional classroom education in any measurable sense, Connick and others say advocates behave as if that is a given. Studies by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), and those done by distance-learning universities themselves show high professor and student satisfaction, and negligible differences in test scores, when TV students are compared with in-class students.
IN summarizing the last few years' attempts to evaluate educational uses of technology, Jerome Johnston, an associate research scientist at the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan, writes, ``The burden of instruction rests not on the medium as much as the programming - the instructional strategies, the content, and the motivational elements (music, entertainment, and pace).''
Tom Wilson, director of media services at USF, says most evaluations get lost in discussions of trade-offs. ``A well-produced video production showing me the inside of a spewing volcano tells me more than any textbook picture,'' says Mr. Wilson. ``But I can also get so caught up in live pictures that I miss the specifics, such as what lava is made of, and what it turns into when hard.''
On one side, there is a dramatic loss of interaction between professor and student, as well as between students. But the potential of taped classes means that the student can watch the same lecture over and over until he or she comprehends it. The availability of tapes eliminates missed lectures. And once professors have taped their own course, they have more free time to answer student questions by phone or in person in small groups.
``I think you can learn as much as any other way - but it takes more discipline,'' says student Hernandez, echoing an often-heard observation. ``The trade-off is this saves me the hassle of going to college and parking and coming home. I'm more free to study.''
``Obviously, distance learning has the capability of doing everything much more efficiently,'' says Wilson. Though he won't quote exact figures, he says the amount his university generates in tuition is 31 times his expense budget. ``That has to be one of the better buys since the Indians sold Manhattan to the Dutch,'' he says.
He quotes figures from a study done by Wayne State University in Detroitshowing that 15 percent of tuition dollars went to heat, cool, and maintain classrooms. ``By transmitting a course over TV, you've saved 15 percent at the outset, not including such intangibles as students' commuting time and parking,'' Wilson says.
Among the other intangibles: Professors can find the time to watch their colleagues' courses, they can fine tune their own, and the public can have easier access. In the Tampa area, USF courses are available on the local cable network - free of charge.
With the price of everything from satellites to transponders coming within range of more institutions, observers see the lowering not only of institutional walls but also the eradication of geographical borders. That could have serious consequences in competition for student dollars.
``If local colleges start losing more and more students to telecourses from afar, you might find a wave of protective legislation,'' surmises Wilson. But others say the sword cuts two ways.
``Many times older students have gotten their feet wet with us to get over their intimidation of higher education - then finish their degree at the local university,'' counters MEU's Andrea Montoni.
Part of the challenge forced on educators by progress in technology, say observers, is to explore the connections between effective uses of that technology and effective instruction. Another is to train teachers so that they are able to comfortably integrate it into their curricula.
``Teachers are walking into a buzzsaw with this stuff without even knowing it,'' says Ron Rescigno, superintendent of the Hueneme School District, Calif., where his Blackstock Junior High School is pioneering some of the nation's cutting edge experiments in video and computer-assisted instruction.
The editors of ``Linking for Learning,'' the report issued by the OTA in 1989, concur: ``If distance education is to play an even greater role in improving the quality of education, it will require expanded technology; more linkages between schools, higher education, and the private sector; and more teachers who use technology well.''