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Business Group Announces Creation of 'Electronic University'

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Washington--A group of businessmen led by the former chief executive officer of Atari Inc. last week announced the start of an "Electronic University," which they expect will enroll 1 million students in computer-based courses by the end of next year.

The businessmen, who received the endorsements of Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and other Reagan Administration officials at a press conference, said the program would make "private, live, personal" education programs available to anyone who owns a computer.

The new program is the first large-scale attempt to use computer networks for education, company officials and others said.

With enrollment in the program, people from preschool through old age will have access to hundreds of courses ranging from modern poetry to "assertiveness training," said Ronald F. Gordon, the former Atari executive who is now chairman of the new commercial company, TeleLearning Systems Inc.

Mr. Gordon said 170 courses are now available and more than 300 additional courses will be developed by 1984.

"That will be only a small fraction of the total number of courses,'' Mr. Gordon said.

Thomas White, the president of the new firm, said "several" colleges are conducting experiments with the program, but he declined to name them. Mr. White said some colleges probably will offer credit for courses "in the near future" for students who pass standardized examinations in the subjects.

The TeleLearning system could change current institutional practices at schools and universities over the next two decades, the company's officials and educators maintained. "A number of [colleges and universities] have indicated that they will use it," Mr. Gordon said. "Students could go to school once every two weeks for lectures, for example," and do most of their other work alone with the computer.

Kenneth E. Young, executive director of the National University Continuing Education Association, agreed at the press conference that the new system's self-paced instruction could pose a challenge to schools and colleges that focus on classroom instruction. Already, he said, 72 universities, including Pennsylvania State University, offer 12,000 correspondence courses through the mail.

Central to the program is the "modem"--a device that enables computers to send information to and receive information from other computers--developed by the company's researchers. The TeleLearning modem does not require knowledge of how computers work.

In a typical electronic course, the instructor would transmit to the student "interactive" educational programs, texts of lectures and course instructions, tests, and graphics. Students and teachers also would send and receive messages from each other daily through an "electronic mail" system. During certain hours each week, the teacher would be available for direct consultation with the student.

The cost of the modem will be $100 to $230, Mr. Gordon said, and course fees will range from $35 to $100. The cost of transmitting information through a telephone network is included in the course fee.

Computers manufactured by Apple Computer Inc., the International Business Machines Corporation, and Commodore Business Machines Inc. can be used to gain access to the programs. Modems for Atari, Timex, and Tandy computers are now being developed.

Private, Live Instructors

"How many people in this country would like to continue their education but can't because a class is inconvenient?" Mr. Gordon said. "This will provide private, live, personal instructors 24 hours a day."

According to Future Computing Inc., a Dallas-based marketing firm, there will be 7.6 million microcomputers in homes and 3.7 million microcomputers in businesses by the end of this year. The number of microcomputers in homes and offices will jump to 14.5 million and 5.9 million, respectively, by the end of 1984, the firm estimates.

About half of the system's first million students probably will be home computer-owners, Mr. White said. The other major markets, he said, are corporations that run internal training programs and technical and vocational schools.

The system's teaching staff will consist of experts on various topics who do not now teach regularly and would like to supplement their current income, the new firm's officials said. The officials did not say what criteria they would use to screen applications for the estimated 3,000 to 5,000 teaching positions that the company expects to fill during the next year.

The announcement of the program, Secretary Bell said, "couldn't have come at a more propitious time [because] I think there's an unprecedented desire in the country to strengthen our schools and universities."

Mr. Bell said that "one of the problems of education is that it's a labor-intensive industry." The electronic education program, he said, "has enormous potential to solve this."

Because few computer or reading skills are required to use the modem for the electronic university, Mr. Bell said, the system could be especially useful for offering "good basic instruction." The Secretary said the new approach could also be used for programs such as President Reagan's recent initiative to combat adult illiteracy.

Other Administration officials at the press conference included Donald J. Senese, assistant secretary for the educational research and improvement, and James K. Coyne, a special assistant to President Reagan for private-sector initiatives.

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