March 27, 2000-- Newsletter #73

By Joe Burns

Goodies to Go (tm)
March 27, 2000--Newsletter #73
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Greetings, Weekend Silicon Warriors,

I wanted to tell you about a conversation I had with an IT friend of mine who runs a server in California. He told me a great story about the online theft of images. At least twice a day, someone writes to me asking how to stop people from stealing images from their Web pages. I always answer that you can't. One way or another, someone can grab the images. In addition, at least once a week someone else writes telling me of a new, revolutionary method of stopping people from stealing images - a method that quickly turns out to not work.

Well...this friend is going to house the pages and images from an upcoming blockbuster movie (He asked me not to tell the name). The movie company hired a software team to set up programming to stop the theft of the images. The team came up with a type of encryption. To view the pages, users would have to download a plug-in that would decrypt the images. The plug-in also disallowed screen capture and right click. According to the software team, the images were safe.

My friend told his IT manager about the software and the gauntlet was thrown down. The plug-in was 300 KB and took around two minutes to download and install. The IT tech had the images in less time.

Oh well. Like I say, the Web is no place to hide things.

Did you hear...

* A software company that makes porn-blocking software is suing the people responsible for distributing software that cracks the blocks. Microsystems Software, which sells the popular Cyber Patrol, filed suit to block Eddy L. O. Jansson and Matthew Skala from continuing to distribute their cphack program. Jansson and Skala are proclaiming censorship as their defense.

* Would you buy stock from Captain Kirk? William Shatner, the face of, has filed with the Securities & Exchange Commission to sell off 35,000 of the 125,000 shares of stock he received in return for being spokesperson. It may be a good deal for Priceline actually. Maybe people will buy the stock for the Shatner connection rather than as an investment. If Shatner signs each certificate, maybe more will be framed and hung than will be cashed in.

* Yet another train wreck 'round Microsoft way. You may have heard that Microsoft finally admitted that there were holes in its IE and other server software products. Well, now one of the patches they offered to plug the holes is backfiring. Apparently the 128-bit encryption patch will erase older version files and cause the software to lock out all users (including the owner) after a restart. Oooops.

* Get your tickets online the next time you want to hit the theatre. Three theatre companies (representing six chains) have begun offering the service in larger markets. Loews Cineplex Entertainment Corp., General Atlantic Partners, and Accretive Technology Partners have invested tens of millions hoping that people will go online to buy. They'll have some success, but I don't believe the impact will be as great until the people can also view the movies online. I mean, you still have to go to the theatre to view the film, right? Why buy the tix online?

Now onto today's topic...

Last year I made a move from Pennsylvania to Louisiana to take a tech position in a new communications department. The reason for the move was that I was offered strong support for putting classes online. I'm already teaching HTML online and, in the fall, I'll go online with my first communications class.

The concept, from the start of putting classes online, was far more academic than profit-oriented. Yes, online classes will generate more money from students without lessening class space, but that's not the real reason. People's lives are hectic. Online classes have brought students to me who couldn't normally take a class with me. Online classes help students who want to take two classes that meet at the same time. If one is online, he or she can now take both. The mother who works a job and raises two kids who couldn't make it to a 9:00AM class can now "go to school" at 10PM after her kids have finally gone to sleep (I teach this student, by the way).

One of the biggest concerns facing any professor who decides to put a class online is making sure the online class has the same academic rigor as the in-class version. Truth be told, I make my online classes harder than my in-class versions. Some of my students read this newsletter. They won't like hearing that...

The academic rigor of a class is very important outside the school as well. If an employer believes that online classes are easier than in-class versions, he or she might not be as willing to hire someone who took the majority of their classes online.

Now, I said all that to say all this: Microstrategy founder Michael Saylor has created a bit of a whirlwind by announcing that he is pledging $100 million towards an unnamed "Ivy-League" cyber-university.

In his mind, anyone with a computer and a modem should be able to receive an education...for free. I like it so far.

The concept is still in the development stage, but the idea is that Saylor will grab the "best and the brightest" professors in all areas of knowledge and have them lecture in state-of-the-art cyber-studios and then broadcast that signal over the Web. Not only over the Web, but Saylor will also set up buildings where people can go to "take" the classes. My guess is that there will be proctors and helpers at these locations.

You could actually listen to a lecture on Web economics by Bill Gates. You could hear a discussion of the Web's structure from Tim Berners-Lee. Michael Jordan could teach on sports. Oprah could teach about broadcasting. You could hear a lecture on Web design from...uh...some guy.

It's a stunning idea. Lecturers would not be paid, but would rather be asked to donate their time. I'd do it. Who wouldn't?

I love the idea. I just wonder about actually calling it a university. Here are a couple of concerns:

Are these really classes? If so, are these classes going to be grouped together in such a way that a person who attended some can proclaim they were taught enough of the basic knowledge to have a degree bestowed upon them? The press release suggests this is the case.

Will there be repeat classes? Can I take Web design in the fall rather than this spring? Will the classes be more than single lectures?

Let's say they are full, semester-long classes. The story I read suggests there will be. How will the level of knowledge retention in students be tested? Traditional tests and papers? If so, who in the world is going to read them all? I'll donate my time to lecture. You'll have to pay me to read 100,000 term papers.

There would be no interaction between students and teachers except for emails. That's not good. That's been the main complaint the three times I have taught online. I wasn't there to answer questions. Students were left to their own devices at times. Many didn't like that feeling.

On the legal side, what about intellectual property? I allow my students to tape record my classes. Many professors do not. They hate the thought of their lectures becoming public record. We work pretty darn hard on these lectures. Giving the words away might be a little more than what some professors can stand.

What about copyright? According to copyright law, as a professor, I can make a copy of an article to put on reserve, for one semester, for my students. What if I go online and lecture to 100,000? Can I put it on reserve for all of them? How about if I don't worry about reserve? I'll just display the charts while lecturing. You can all visit me in the poorhouse after my suit for copyright infringement is settled.

My main concern, as I stated before, is academic rigor. How will students be tested? How will a professor know he or she is imparting the knowledge correctly?

Let's say you own a company and two people come in for the same job. One has a degree from Yale and the other has a degree from this online institution. (Yes, it's a fair comparison-Saylor said the education will be Ivy League level.)

Off the top of your head...who would you think is more qualified? You may be fully and totally wrong in your stereotypes, but you'd have them nonetheless.

I think this is a magnificent idea. I really do. I want to see such a university set up and running. Many universities are offering full degrees online right now. Seton Hall offers a Master's in Executive Communication and one in Healthcare Administration online. William Howard Taft University has an online catalog for their Independent Study degree programs in the graduate schools of business, education and law. Indiana Wesleyan University offers an MBA online. Of course, there are many more. These are just a few that popped up in a quick Yahoo search.

The concept of a university that only grants online degrees, THAT'S FREE? Now that truly is a novel concept. I would like to see such a thing come to light. I just have some problems with the concept as it stands right now. I've read two stories on the idea and discussed it with a couple of colleagues. We agreed that the broad, unfocused curriculum probably wouldn't be academically rigorous enough. Yes, you would learn from the best, but you would learn a grouping of topics apart from other students. You wouldn't gather a base of knowledge. I say that because from what I read, the school will not be set up that way.

Try this. Set the university up like a traditional institution. Hire a base staff and accept students. The base staff would teach the required recurring classes. Every student has to have his or her basic English, math, and science courses. A mixture of staff and invited lecturers would teach the upper level courses. It would be inside the 300 and 400 level courses that Saylor's concept would come alive. That's where Stephen King would teach writing fiction, or Dan Rather would teach journalism.

The key is to only allow a set number of students. Keep it free. That's the best part of the idea. But only allow a certain number so that the class size is manageable to a professor and his or her proctors. That way the students can be tested. And they can have some interaction with the professor.

Keep the idea of buildings around the country (and the world), but stock those buildings with proctors. Grad students from local universities would love to make a few extra bucks helping that way (if their institution will allow it).

Basically, take the traditional university model and put a computer between the professor and the students.

OK, before you write and tell me I am not a forward thinker and how dare I close the doors after a certain number of people, hear me out.

The idea won't work as stated. It's too broad. If all Saylor wanted to do was to offer online lectures that anyone could attend, then I wouldn't have a lick of trouble with the idea, but he doesn't.

He wants to offer degrees. The open format would not allow for enough perception of academic rigor for the granted degree to be worth the paper it's printed on. By setting the number of students and hiring a staff that will offer the base education, the degree would carry more weight.

Think about it. What if your school offered a mishmash of topics that are offered simply because a lecturer was available?

But what about allowing those who just want to sit in on the lecture to do so? I think that's fine. Those who take the courses for fun should register just like anyone else-but register as an audit. A record is kept of all who are auditing in order to keep track of who is sitting in. They may be future students.

This is a great idea, but it needs some tweaking. I do believe education should be open to all, but that education should be a good education. It should be an education that is recognized as strong in knowledge and testing. Just because you took a class from the head of GM doesn't mean you now know the car industry.

I hope this flies. I really do.


That's that. The HTML Goodies Content Editor, Amita, has informed me that the number of people now subscribed to Goodies to Go! is over 150,000. Gosh. It stuns me when I think about it.

Joe Burns, Ph.D.

And Remember: I mentioned Captain Kirk earlier in the newsletter. Many people don't know how truly scientific many parts of the Star Trek TV series actually were. The writers did a great deal of research to make sure they were at least erring on the side of truth. Warp speed is an actual concept. It means to travel the speed of light. Warp Two is not twice the speed of light, but rather light speed squared. The problem is that according to Einstein, that's not possible because e=mc^2. If something ever traveled at the speed of light it would become pure energy. The debate rages...

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