Harvard draws a line in the cybersand

If the Internet pipeline gets fat enough fast enough, maybe community-college Prof. Douglas Rowlett will use it to vault into the stratosphere of faculty stardom alongside Harvard Law School Prof. Arthur Miller.

As a well-known legal scholar, Dr. Miller has a distinct lead in notoriety. But Dr. Rowlett is way ahead when it comes to putting scholarship and teaching skills online for the world to see.

The key difference is that Houston Community College-Southwest is happy for Rowlett to broadcast his class instruction over the Internet - but Harvard University is not at all eager for Miller to do the same.

In 1998, Miller recorded 11 lectures for a course on civil procedure for Concord University School of Law, a for-profit, online, degree-granting institution whose parent is Kaplan Inc., an education subsidiary of the Washington Post Co.

When it found out, Harvard put its foot down and refused to permit the arrangement.

"I happen to believe there is a universe beyond my classroom," Miller says. "I've used every medium available to me. I've used tapes, books, television. In each case, I've just tried to extend my love of the profession and my voice. That's what I started to do with distance learning on the Internet - and ran into a brick wall."

Miller was surprised, he says, because he had done similar things to popularize the law in the past. Besides his books, he was an early pioneer among scholars in putting the law on television with his show "Miller's Court," beginning in 1979. Not long after, he served as legal editor for ABC's "Good Morning America."

None of that was a problem for Harvard. But the Internet definitely is. The school's faculty manual has modified its "conflict of commitment" rule to now include Internet teaching.

"The image of communicating to thousands of people over the Internet is a wonderful image," Miller says. "But it's that brick wall known as the university that may keep it from becoming reality."

A Harvard spokesman says the 1999 Miller-Internet flap was never over money or control. Rather, it was the risk of diluting the value of a Harvard education by making it seem Miller was on the Concord faculty as well as at Harvard.

"In certain markets, like the legal field, superstar teachers like Arthur Miller may one day become the paradigm on the Internet," says James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan. "But we're still a few years away from that. Until then, the main effect of the Internet on undergraduates will be to create a generation of students that demands hands-on, active learning."

That prediction is music to the ears of Rowlett, who concedes his push onto the Internet was less about notoriety and more to get his students more involved in coursework. So he created his course's own Internet radio station. It cost him $500, he says, which included a $100 microphone and a $79 RadioShack mixer.

"If some big distance-education company was going to teach Shakespeare, who could compete?" he says. "We're all worried about that."

His response has been to put students' poetry and research onto the radio station for the world to listen to. Students get appreciative e-mail from all parts of the globe. That makes them proud and helps them retain the information, he says.

It's also his hedge against a future when students will have more choices about who teaches them. "The dilemma for us is how do we keep them coming to our classes," he says. "If we're going to compete with superstars, we're going to have to engage students on this level. This is our alternative to being beat up by the big guys with the big bucks."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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