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Companies expect profits from people who stay online long enough to buy related materials

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 2000



In the beginning there was Harvard - America's first university. In the new millennium, there is notHarvard.com, thumbing its nose at the educational elite.

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NotHarvard.com is just one of several Web firms pitching "eduCommerce," a blend of education and commerce, as the next big thing. And it just may be.

Depending on one's perspective, it is either a triumph leading toward free high-quality education - or educational snake oil and unending infomercials - for all.

This breed of online course promotes products or services, but also offers useful information - aimed most often at adults who would otherwise take noncredit extension courses. Promoters are quick to point out that the classes are not accredited and are no substitute for college.

But some in academia are worried.

"What we have is an exploding fad for describing a whole array of activities as university courses that may never have been before considered a program of study," says Alex Molnar, director of the Center for the Analysis of Commercialism in Education at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Not.Harvard.com does not run classes under its own name. Rather, it packages the products information of companies like bookseller Barnes & Noble, and will unfurl Barnes & Noble University next month. It also created CodeWarriorU.com for Metrowerks, a software company based in Austin, Texas.

In its five-month existence, CodeWarriorU.com has attracted 30,000 students to its nine free online programming courses, Metrowerks officials say. Course materials include the company's software ($49 to $119) and textbooks ($15 to $64 each).

Since it was founded last year, notHarvard.com has launched four "online universities." The company starts a new eduCommerce site every 10 to 14 days, an official says. The typical class size among the four sites is 750 to 1,000 students. Some classes are as big as 5,000 students. Even so, the dropout rate is less than 5 percent, officials say.

"Not.Harvard.com is helping democratize education by turning the current pay-for-content model upside down and making education free and accessible," founder Mike Rosenfelt said in February. A company press release also touts the free online education as a new corporate "sales and marketing weapon."

One analyst with the Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn.-based consulting firm, predicts an $8 billion market in "customer-focused e-learning" by 2003.

If the market grows that fast, it will be because of the likes of Adam Kay, a satisfied CodeWarriorU customer/student brushing up on his programming skills - whenever he feels like it.

"The main thing I like about these courses are that they're entirely self-reliant," he writes in an e-mail interview. "There are no grades, no schedules and no pressure to perform at any given level."

Could eduCommerce one day replace college? It's not likely, but that doesn't mean academicians are sanguine about slapping a "university" label on a Web site.

"What qualifies it as a 'university'?" Dr. Molnar wonders. "Who are the faculty? Who assessed these courses?"

Big companies, that's who. Barnes & Noble University will debut this summer with 30 courses open to the millions who click their way across the bookseller's Web site. There will be "Introduction to Jazz," "School Days: Getting Your Kids Prepared," and a raft of others. Eventually, officials say, the site may offer 1,000 or more courses.

The payoff? Sales of books, CDs, and videos, available at the click of a "buy" icon. What the "university" will do for B&N is create "stickiness" at its Web site, officials say. In other words, student-customers will spend more time on the Web site to finish their courses.

Barnes & Noble also owns part of notHarvard.com, and its books are sold on many of the "university" Web sites.

This scenario causes some to shudder.

"When a nonuniversity calls itself a university, it's done with the awareness that ... it will begin to be believed no matter how absurd it is on its face," says William Rukeyser, a coordinator for Learning in the Real World, a nonprofit in Woodlands, Calif., that focuses on education technology.

But Gus Carlson, a B&N spokesman, denies that the university label on the new venture is an effort to mislead anyone. "We have gone out of our way to make sure people understand this is not competing with college courses."

And Judith Bitterli, president of notHarvard.com, has two soothing words for critics: Lighten up. "This isn't an academic degree," she says. "It's designed for people who want to pursue outside interests and hobbies."

Still, gentle reader, if thou dost enroll in Barnes & Noble University's "Walking Through Shakespeare: The Comedies," me thinkest thou should'st first check thy bookshelf. And if thou findest not "A Midsummer Night's Dream," be warned: Thou mayest be tempted to click on an icon for a copy for several dollars, though thou payest not a dime in tuition.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society