Such questions are being asked as universities adopt new technology to make teaching more exciting, as students increasingly bring their own computers with them to college - and as universities opt for national banks of computer-assessed exam questions. (It was revealed last week at the Royal Geographical Society's annual conference that four universities have devised a set of 10,000 computer-marked questions.)
Staff at traditional universities say students will still need the teachers in their corduroy suits even with all the new technology.
"Good quality education depends on interaction among people, and the role of technology is to facilitate and aid students, not to replace academics," says Sir Derek Roberts, provost of University College, London.
The real boffins go further. Tim O'Shea, master of Birkbeck College London, and formerly of the Open University, argues that new technology requires more of teachers because of its interactive nature, and that it certainly doesn't save money. For example, it encourages students to communicate by e-mail. And these messages need answers from armies of online tutors.
It also means academics have to become like scriptwriters, spending hours designing and honing material for the small screen. "You may spend three hours preparing a lecture that takes one hour to deliver, but 200 hours preparing computer-assisted learning that lasts one hour," says O'Shea.
Some universities, however, are using the new technology to save on academics. The University of Phoenix in America, a profit-making distance-learning outfit, offers degrees on the Internet and employs very few conventional lecturers, thereby saving millions of dollars.
Only 18 per cent of its faculty are classified as teachers or educators, according to Professor Jose-Marie Griffiths, of the University of Michigan. Moreover, the level and quality of their credentials are not clear. Most are what the university calls "practitioners", professionals who work for companies full time and are paid by the course.
The work load is hefty, by any standards. One faculty member reported teaching 36 classes a year on top of his full-time job as a management consultant. "One has to wonder about the quality of the teacher - and of his management consultancy," says Griffiths, who works in the school of information at Michigan. All faculty members teach from a standardised syllabus from the university.
Such stories spook conventional academics, some of whom regard the new technologies with awe, if not distaste. At University College, London, (UCL) a new initiative has been launched to try to persuade all academics that computers can improve their teaching and students' learning. New universities have been in the vanguard. But old universities are playing catch-up.
UCL has combined its computer centre, library, media resources and educational professional development into one division. It is helping enthusiasts to develop materials for their teaching, and putting on exhibitions to show what can be done.
University College London is thereby trying to put itself on the map. It may not be as advanced as Umist, Manchester, Bristol or Liverpool, which have been investing in new technology for some time, but it is making a start.
At the University of Michigan, huge effort has gone into designing and modifying courses for electronic delivery. This has required 25 per cent more effort on the part of academics, says Professor Griffiths.
A home-grown illustration of just how much effort is needed is provided by the Open University (OU), the world leader in producing quality distance learning materials. It is doing so with staffing levels that are eye-popping to traditional universities - 900 full-time academics and 900 full-time support staff.
The key question is not so much whether academics will become obsolete, but how their job will change. Instead of academic work being seen as amateur and craft-based, aimed at smallish groups of students, the academic becomes an expert, says Diana Laurillard, Pro-vice-chancellor at the OU. "They become responsible for multimedia resources that thousands can use. At the same time they'll still have to work as a small group mentor."
Thus the academics of the future will need different qualities. They really have to put themselves in the place of the student to design good computer-based materials, according to O'Shea. "They have to imagine the student experience."
And for the online tutoring they need patience and sympathy. These are not, perhaps, qualities which have been expected of academics.
"The thing that the tutor has lost is the exposition. They do not reveal the truth any more. The tutor has moved from being God to being the father confessor. The student says: `I don't understand this.' And the tutor says: `Many people have this difficulty. Can I help you understand it this way?" explains O'Shea.
Thus the student will look to the academic for support and encouragement, but no longer for revelation.
THE COMPUTER PROGRAMME THAT MARKS COURSEWORK
TACO - this is not the tasty Mexican dish, but a useful piece of software enabling students' coursework to be marked online. With rising student numbers, the marking lecturers have to do has mushroomed.
In the computer science department at University College, London, four staff had to mark the coursework of more than 500 students - a big load when each student completes several projects a term. Now TACO does it for them.
Developed at UCL, it stands for Teaching and Coursework Online. Lecturers can "plug in" the sets of questions on which they wish to test students. TACO will mark the results, as well as give feedback.
The academics can choose from a range of question types, including multiple choice, questions where there is a right or wrong answer, and questions where they require the student to indicate how certain they are about their knowledge or understanding. It means money is saved on staff costs and paper, and that students are able to get their results back quickly.
"TACO is neither impersonal, nor a substitute for `real' teaching," says Angela Sasse, senior lecturer in computer science. "Properly planned, and taken as part of a broad course, computer-based teaching is not second best. It can be more challenging to students - it highlights underperformance, and you can go a long way towards eliminating cheating."
AN INTERACTIVE WEBSITE TO TEACH HISTORY
Rick Halpin, reader in History of the United States at University College, has designed a website to aid the teaching of an important introductory level course in US history. At first the website simply included reading lists, bibliography, essay questions and so on. It also tried to orient the small group discussion that runs alongside Halpin's weekly lectures around primary documents posted on the Web. This year, the historians received a grant to improve the website and make it interactive. Now students can ask questions, comment on lectures, and receive answers. There are Web-based assignments and the students are being shown how to use the Web to research their essays. The website now contains visual sources, including copies of original documents, which students can see on the screen. A section of a course on the abolition of slavery, for example, is accompanied by the original illustrations from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
STUDENT SURGERIES VIA TELEVISION
One of the best ways to train medical students is by bedside teaching - having a patient to prod, who is showing classic symptoms of a disease. But it can be done only with small numbers of students and it depends on finding suitable patients. So surgeons at University College, London, asked technologists to help them project bedside teaching on to a screen and so reach a wider audience.
With a grant from the Higher Education Funding Council, they were able to set up a system for teaching surgery at six university centres around the country: Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Manchester, Newcastle and UCL. Twice a week, a surgical demonstration was televised at one of these centres and seen at the other five. Students could hear and see, and ask questions. The microphone and the camera were passed to whoever wanted to speak.
"The set-up was really interactive," says Mike Hobsley, a retired professor of surgery who used to work at Middlesex Hospital. "But we discovered after a year that students weren't turning up. They were intimidated by the TV camera and by the thought that they might make fools of themselves in front of their peers at other institutions." The surgeons overcame this by appointing students as spokesmen for the group, to avoid the spotlight falling on any one student for asking a daft question or getting an answer wrong. The exercise became highly successful.