do you take higher education to the masses when your country covers
a huge expanse of the Earth and its population numbers a billion?
The Chinese government
has decided that the Internet is part of the solution. It wants to have
five million students attending as many as 100 online colleges within
four years, says the China Daily. China's overarching goal is to
get 15 percent of eligible citizens enrolled in some form of higher
education, up from the 11 percent now taking classes. Currently, about
240,000 students are in degree programs at 38 online institutions. China
is certainly adopting its distance-education program swiftly. It opened
its first online school in 1997. That collaboration, between Hunan University
and Hunan Telecom, has attracted about 3,500 students. The largest online
college, offered by the People's University of China, has 6,000
Michael B. Yahuda,
a Chinese expert at London's School of Economics, says what the
government is doing makes sense. Online universities offer China a means
to reach a large and far-flung group of potential students, he says.
They have great potential.
There are problems,
however. Lack of bandwidth and a cable infrastructure means that few
Chinese students can receive the content they'll need at home.
So most schools use a model based on Qinghua University, which beams
content via a satellite to a network of teaching centers. Qinghua began
its online program three years ago and expects to have 5,000 students
this year. An online degree from Qinghua requires completion of 15 courses
taken over two to four years. Cost of a degree at People's University's
is between $1,000 and $2,000. At Qinghua, tuition is $480 to $600 a
year. To Americans, China's online degrees must seem like bargains.
Hey, wake up! You have a problem! It's not quite
that blunt, but diabetics may find themselves grateful for a new Australian
engineering invention that will warn sleeping sufferers that they're
The inventors say
that the noninvasive device could also render obsolete the diabetics'
daily chore of monitoring blood sugar levels by sampling blood or body
Hung Nguyen, a
professor on Sydney's University of Technology engineering faculty,
developed the gadgetdubbed Hypomonto give diabetics an easy
way to check on sugar levels as they sleep.
is dangerously low blood sugar levels, can cause coma and death if untreated.
It is a common complication for patients with a certain type of diabetes.
Episodes commonly occur while patients are asleepdelaying treatment
with potentially fatal consequences.
employs electrodes attached to patients' skin, which measure skin
moisture and heart activity. When there is a significant change, an
alarm alerts the patient, parent, or caregiver in the form of a ring,
buzz, or vibration.
currently no comparably noninvasive monitor in the marketplace that
identifies hypoglycemic conditions in diabetic patients using important
physiological parameters such as skin moisture, heart signals, and brain
waves, Nguyen says.
trials were completed at Sydney's Prince of Wales Hospital, a major
teaching facility. Supervised by Stephen Colagiuri, director of the
hospital's diabetes unit, these tests demonstrated that the device
works well. The University of Technology is in discussion with several
possible commercial developers of the Hypomon. The device could be on
the market in around three years.
to help diabetics while they sleep, Nguyen believes some patients will
opt also to monitor blood glucose levels using his invention while awake
by carrying the microprocessorlinked to electrodes on their skindiscreetly
in a pocket.
The device can
also be adapted to monitor infants susceptible to Sudden Infant Death
Syndrome and patients with cardiac problems.
on Killer Soybeans
summer, the European Commission recommended proposals to reassure consumers
on the other side of the Atlantic that their foods were safe
from genetically modified (GM) crops. Currently, American exporters
of soybeans and corn face hurdles in exporting those commodities in
bulk to Europe because most GM varieties are banned there, while American
soy and corn crops are predominately GM. Indeed, no GM crops have been
grown commercially within the European Union (E.U.) since 1998; a region-wide
ban is in place until the proposed strict labeling guidelines and a
system to trace GM ingredients through the food chain are in place.
There is no evidence that GM foods are dangerous to humans, but in the
wake of several major food safety crises in Europe in recent years,
many consumers there now believe that they pose a health risk.
are saying that Europe's attitude toward bioengineered foods is
unsustainable. That's because GM crops have become so widespread100
million acres were planted across the globe last year.
So it's becoming
impossible for people to completely avoid them. Consider that 90 percent
of world soy and corn exports come from the U.S., Argentina, and Brazil.
GM crops are the mainstays within the US and Argentina, while Brazil
is close to approving them. Europeans will not be able to avoid
them (GM soy and corn) for long, at least not at a realistic price,
says Jim Dunwell, a plant scientist at Reading University in Britain.
Dunwell says it
will soon be practically impossible to ensure that every food
product is 100 percent free of GM materials. Even organic foods
won't be able to guarantee absolute purity. At best, he says, Europe
may have to accept that so-called GM-free foods contain up to 1 percent
of genetically modified crops. Historically, he adds, food regulators
have allowed a certain amount of impurities into foods, because it's
not realistic to do otherwiseparticularly in processed foods.
Pork sausages labeled 100 percent pork will probably contain trace amounts
of beef or lamb. But, Dunwell admits, many consumers don't understand
this concept, and want zero tolerance when it comes to GM crops.
European regulators acted to tighten GM labeling standards just weeks
after a U.N. report criticized Western governments and consumers for
failing to recognize the value of GM foods and the potential they have
to ease Third World food shortages. The current debate . . . over
genetically modified crops mostly ignores the concerns and needs of
the developing world, it says, and tends to be driven by
the views of Western consumers who do not face food shortages or nutritional
deficiencies . . .
Software to the Test
Think of how often
your PC crashes. Now think how much we already rely on embedded software
to control critical components within such things as medical devices,
airplanes, cars, and high-tech weaponry. If your PC only crashes once
or twice a year, you probably consider yourself lucky. But if some of
these other software were to fail that regularly, well, the problem
might be more than just an irritation. Now two researchers from Kansas
State University's College of Engineering are leading a five-year,
$3.2 million project to ensure that embedded software is properly tested,
so that once it's in use, there is a high degree of confidence
that it will work.
It does sound scary
that rigorous tests of critical-use software are only now being developed.
That's because, in general, it's easier to build complex
systems than to test them . . . the bulk of software research and industry
is focused on building systems that have new capabilities and are faster,
explains Matthew Dwyer, who received the grant along with John Hatcliff,
his colleague in the computing and information sciences department.
As software becomes even more embedded in everyday products, the market's
tolerance for failure will decrease, he adds. But that might require
several catastrophic accidents in which software is clearly to blame.
We'd prefer not to wait for that. Dwyer hastens to add, however,
that the risk of deaths occurring because of software failure is probably
no greater than people dying from human error, which is marginally comforting.
There are good
methods already in use to determine software reliability, but they are
incredibly expensive, he explains, and are mainly used for
very critical operations. AT&T, for instance, has 2,000 people dedicated
to developing and testing software to keep its telephone networks running
smoothly. As embedded software becomes a regular part of our lives,
Dwyer says, easier, less costly methods will be needed to keep failure
rates low. Typically, engineers use mathematical models to determine
the correctness of a system, but most models used for testing software
are superficial, Dwyer says. His team's trying to devise a testing
model that's closer to traditional engineering models.
Funding for the
research comes from the Defense Department, and Dwyer and Hatcliff are
working in tandem with colleagues at the University of Massachusetts.
Two other schools, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of
Pennsylvania, are considering other possible software tests. Next time
your laptop crashes, think about how reliant upon software your car
has become. Then wish Dwyer et. al. very good luck, indeed.
Lag at Public Institutions
When the American
Association of University Professors published its annual report on
faculty salaries earlier this year, it was sad reading for full professors
who teach at public universities. And since 80 percent of Americans
are educated at publicly financed schools, that's a very large group
of academics who may have been bemoaning their bank balances. On average,
the gap between professors at public and private schools is nearly $17,100--that's
about $342,000 over a 20-year teaching career. But the range of salaries
was from $113,000 to $57,000--a gap of $56,000--and disparities of $25,000
to $30,000 are not uncommon.
ravine between well-endowed private universities and public ones has
some experts worried. "It is a real crisis," says F. King Alexander,
a professor of educational organization at the University of Illinois
at Urbana/Champaign. Ronald Ehrenberg, an economist at Cornell University,
agrees: "The real issue is whether publics will be able to retain high-quality
faculty, or if they will be bid away to higher paying privates." And
even within public schools, a two-tier system is evolving, Alexander
says, as some institutions give priority to two or three departments
in an effort to keep up with their private rivals at some levels.
The gap dates
to the late 70s, and Ehrenberg says the main problem is that states
treat spending for higher education as "discretionary," while funding
elementary and secondary education is usually sacrosanct. "So when states
run into financial problems, as they did during the late 1980s and early
1990s, funding for public higher education suffers," he says.
To be sure, money
is not the sole criterion academics use to decide where to work. Quality
of life can be a big factor: where a school is located, ties to family
and friends. And don't forget cost of living. A fat salary in an expensive
city may offer less spending power than a modest salary in a smaller
town. But in the end, Alexander argues, money counts for a lot. "Salary
will matter more and more as the disparity widens," he says.
of a Different Sort
of the largest textbook publishers are rapidly venturing into cyberspace
and launching online learning networks. These networks offer content
(including e-textbooks), assessment and management tools, and other
resources. One observer has likened them to huge community schoolhouses
that offer something for teachers, students, and parents. Paul LeBlanc,
an expert on Internet education at Marlboro College in Vermont and a
former executive at publisher Houghton Mifflin, says "publishers really
have no choice" but to venture
into virtual education. That's because today's teachers and students
have come to rely on PCs nearly as much as books.
That said, how
to make money from learning networks is something that no one has yet
figured out. Scholastic was the first to launch a network back in 1996,
using a fee-based model. It switched to a free site three years later,
and now hopes to find revenues from e-commerce.
the fray last January with its McGraw-Hill Learning Network. It's based
on the presumption that it will extract revenues from sales of interactive
textbooks, and doesn't figure to make money on the teaching tools it
offers, which include grade-trackers and online calendars. Pearson,
the London-based industry leader, has a year-old free site that has
sections for K-12, colleges, lifelong learning and professional development.
It mainly offers Web-based tools, including grade books, quizzes, and
games. As of last June, the Pearson site's losses totaled $122 million
on revenues of $4.4 million. It expects to earn money from the sale
of "digital goods"--books, videos, toys, and software--but sees revenues
primarily coming from advertising and sponsorships. Meanwhile, PLATO's
Web Learning Network has set itself up as an application service provider
to deliver curriculum, assessment, and management tools to subscriber
LeBlanc says McGraw-Hill's
plan to focus on e-books seems sound. He's dubious of sites that rely
on advertising, since ad revenues haven't been strong enough to bolster
commercial sites. But he also doubts if interactive books will create
new markets for publishers. He sees them primarily as a means to retain
market share. "It's really a rear-guard action," LeBlanc says. Interactive
textbooks do have their advantages, including 3-D graphics and streaming
video. "Those are powerful tools," LeBlanc admits. Yet "textbooks are
alive and well" and will remain so for years to come, he adds. Reading
from a screen is less pleasant than reading from a printed page, and
books are hard to beat for portability and ease of use. So don't toss
away your highlighter pens just yet.
college students live on campus, they pay for dorm rooms. If they have
telephone service, they pay for that. If they're on a meal plan, they're
likewise billed. And required textbooks don't come free, either. But
over the last few years, as academic use of the Internet has become
de rigueur, most students have gotten free access via super fast campus
networks. The upshot is that many students put these systems to use
for nonacademic activities--primarily downloading music from file-sharing
sites, like Napster. That's put a drain on some schools' networks, forcing
many to add more capacity. Now some schools are starting to rethink
their free-access policies, and some have started to charge students
for the service. The University of Pennsylvania now charges students
about $180 a year, a fee that's bundled into housing charges, along
with phone and cable television costs. Moreover, it has disconnected
the free Internet service it provided to off-campus students and faculty,
which was costing it $1 million a year.
A spot check by
Prism of three other universities found that two were still offering
free connections and had no plans to change that policy. A third, Johns
Hopkins University in Baltimore, has always charged for its campus Internet
At the Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute, not only is access free but plans are afoot to
make it even more available. Students will soon be able to dial up from
a newly built dorm, as well as from the student union building and the
fitness center. Spokesperson Patricia Azriel says the school has not
had any problems with students clogging the network. "This being a tech
school, it would be kind of strange to charge students for technology
they're supposed to have," she says.
of Michigan also plans to continue giving its students, faculty, and
staff free Internet connections, a service that costs about $1.5 million
a year. Michigan hasn't had trouble with music fans gumming up its network.
"From time to time, usually in the wee hours, we have seen use in the
residence halls at rates that congest the system, but this has not been
a serious problem," the provost's office says.
But Johns Hopkins
has always taken the view that Internet access is a service the campus
community must pay for. Its network is five years old and students have
always paid to get online. The current charge is $23 a month. Faculty
and staff are charged, too, but their departments usually pick up the