PRISM Magazine On-Line  - November 1999
Log On, Tune In, Add Courses

by David Brindley

Technology is turning students on to a wider variety of courses at some liberal arts colleges. Students at Birmingham Southern College, in Birmingham, Alabama, for instance, were able to take an online course in archaeology at Trinity University in San Antonio.

Using the Internet, small schools are beginning to pool resources while expanding their curriculum and course offerings to students on their own campuses. And although engineering classes have yet to be included in the techno-cornucopia, it's only a matter of time before technology-savvy liberal arts students start clamoring for computer engineering courses and the like.

Members of the Associated Colleges of the South, a consortium of 15 liberal arts schools from Texas to Virginia, are at the forefront of efforts to use technology to expand the typical scope of courses. Students at the various colleges were able to take the online archaeology class by logging on to a Web site run by Trinity University professor Mark Garrison. The students reviewed pictures and other course materials online while lectures and conversations were handled through conference calls. As technology advances, the colleges hope to conduct lectures online as well.

According to Mary McPherson, a vice president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which funds innovative education initiatives through its technology in education program, technology allows small colleges to remain small but also offer more choices to students. Students at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for example, began taking Japanese courses at nearby Furman University this fall via video-conferencing equipment. And Middlebury College, in Middlebury, Vermont, is developing a virtual online lecture series that brings together contemporary German authors and students at five U.S. colleges.

Compared with those courses, online engineering classes would be a snap; there's no need for a translator.

The Competition Ate My Homework

Q: Why didn't Johnny turn in his homework?
A: His nondisclosure agreement didn't allow it.

And that's no joke. As more and more engineering students are hired to work for their professors who have launched high-tech startups, a whole new set of potential conflicts is surfacing.

Take the recent case of four engineering undergrads at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for instance. The students, all hired by one faculty member to work at his high-tech company, found themselves in the predicament of being unable to complete another professor's homework assignment. Not because they couldn't figure it out. In fact, they had already completed the project—designing a new system to speed up Web-page delivery—at their workplace. Therein lay the problem: they had signed nondisclosure agreements and were bound to keep silent about the work. In the end, new homework was assigned, which the students completed.

Still, the experience points to the relatively new phenomenon of student conflicts of interest arising from off-campus work. The situation is especially worrisome for many engineering departments, since the increasing number of technology startups require a steady supply of students to do the time-consuming work. Conflicts of interest, ranging from scheduling clashes to the prospect of students dropping out of school to work full time, are likely to come up more frequently.

It's also a topic that many schools are unprepared to deal with. While most universities have already addressed issues relating to faculty members and their off-campus businesses, few—if any—guidelines exist when it comes to hiring students for private companies run by professors.

"We're making up policy as we go along," John Guttag, head of MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, told the Wall Street Journal in a story about the school's nondisclosure agreement snafu. MIT now requires students who want to work at a faculty member's company to first meet with another professor for advice.

Stanford University, situated in the heart of Silicon Valley, is another ripe target for student conflicts. Professors in the School of Engineering, however, try to preempt potential problems.

"I have never employed any of my students while they were enrolled in my courses," says David Liddle, a consulting professor at Stanford and president of nearby Interval Research Corp. "That way, there is no overlap to cause conflict between academic and business roles and responsibilities."

Likewise, when asked what advice he could give to professors who hire students, David Cheriton, a Stanford professor and co-founder of Granite, a high-tech company, said "I like the rule: Don't do anything that won't look good on 60 Minutes. It's not enough to be clean, you want to squeak."

That's good news for students, but bad news for Mike Wallace.

And Now a Message From Our Sponsor

There's always something being sold on the Web. The information highway isn't just dotted with ads, they are plastered on nearly every surface. But college Web sites have avoided the advertising onslaught—until now, that is.

Beginning this fall, many students at colleges across the country logged on to their campus Web sites and found ads from dozens of companies, ranging from book and computer sellers to apartment-finding services. While these ads have raised concerns about the commercialization of colleges and the effects of advertising on a captive student body, the ads are soon to pop up on campus sites at more than 500 institutions.

Why the sudden rush to accept advertising? You could say it's a matter of dollars and sense. Advertisers are willing to pay to reach students; those ad revenues go toward setting up and running college Web sites and e-mail services, which can cost as much as $2 million for a mid-size public university. What's more, several new companies are willing to take care of all the details: from selling the ads to running the sites.

One such company, Salt Lake City-based Campus Pipeline , has contracted with 420 institutions to create an internal Web site, where students can register for classes, request transcripts and apply for loans, as well as access e-mail. In exchange, the company is able to sell ad space to other companies and earn commissions on student purchases from Web sites that are linked with the campus site.

"We are changing the face of higher education and revolutionizing the way college services are delivered," boasts Chad Muir, CEO of Campus Pipeline, based in Salt Lake City.

Not to mention changing the way ads are delivered, too.

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