Click 'n learn

No traffic, no 9 a.m. classes. Learning online is booming - and may fundamentally change the face of higher education

For eight centuries, university students have trudged to classrooms where higher learning was dispensed face to face by a frequently learned, sometimes wizened, occasionally clueless professor.

If you didn't want to march to class that was fine. You might not graduate.

Now Stephanie Currier, a Washington, D.C., housewife and mother of a three-year-old who grabs all the attention he can get, is breaking that time-tested mold.

So far, Ms. Currier has completed three online university classes over the Internet - two Spanish classes and a writing class. Sitting at home in front of her computer around midnight, sometimes in her bathrobe, she comments on other students' essays, files her own homework, and writes questions to her professor, whose answers she picks up the next day.

Her goal: get her bachelor's, then a master's degree in education so she can teach.

She's well on her way. This summer Currier took History 432: the US Civil War, delivered to her home computer over the phone lines from a University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Web site. Her professor, Thomas Baughn, communicates with her - and 39 other students (including one in Zimbabwe) from his home computer in Silver Springs, Md.

"I never could have taken regular classes," Currier says. "The traffic is too intense. At first, I wanted to find a part-time job. Then I realized for the same time investment I could finish my bachelor's online and be with my son."

Like Currier, about 2.2 million students are expected to be enrolled in on-line learning courses by 2002, up from 710,000 in 1998, according to International Data Corporation (IDC), a Framingham, Mass., research firm. The key driver: necessity and convenience.

"This is the next step in American higher education," says Gerald Heeger, UMUC president. "I think the grand promise of an online university is its ability, ultimately, to offer a very rich learning environment worldwide to people who might not otherwise have access to a sophisticated education."

But even with its glowing promise of greater access to higher education, not everyone is enthralled by the changes.

"Some of what is happening is good - some is not good," says Mark Smith, associate director of government relations for the American Association of University Professors. "Curriculum decisions need to be discussed and approved by faculty so you ensure the quality. Right now, market forces are pushing this. It's a 'keep ahead of the Joneses' mentality that's driving this more than, 'hey, we've found this great way to provide learning.' "

Nearly 50 percent of today's rising post-secondary enrollment is adults age 25 years or older, the Department of Education reports. That's because in a knowledge-based economy where four or five careers may become typical, lifelong learning is more than a buzz phrase.

Online courses are a dream come true for adult learners who could care less about pep rallies and who cannot stand yet another commute through traffic just to sit in a classroom.

Recognizing the appeal, venture capitalists have funnelled millions into the enterprise. But the market is fickle, as those who run education dotcoms found when tech stocks tumbled in March. Now the industry is in a classic shake out.

On the cutting edge are young public "edu-companies" like CollegeLink.com, Lightspan, Student Advantage, VarsityBooks. All are looking for a niche as a supplier, gateway, or service provider to online colleges - or to bricks-and-mortar universities trying to put courses online.

Yet the promise of a slice of a $240 billion higher-education market is overshadowed by the specter of coming mergers, buyouts, and bankruptcies.

"Nobody really knows how successful the delivery of higher education is going to be online via for-profit companies," says Michael Sandler, chairman of EduVentures.com, a Boston-based research company. "We're neutral on it. There are serious business and legal issues. Do you have a scalable business model? Who owns the intellectual property? These are totally untraveled waters."

This matters little to Ellen Gutter, a New Jersey office manager. When she decided to get a master's degree in business communication, she decided to go online all the way. "The whole world thought I was crazy," says the healthcare administrator. "Back in 1995, this was a revolutionary way to do this."

'Virtual commencement'

After a few classes, family matters intervened. She had to put off her studies until finally, last year, she resumed. In May she graduated in "virtual commencement" from Jones International University, which this year became the first totally "virtual university" to be accredited.

With 84 faculty - four of them fulltime - Jones has picked up steam since being accredited. It has had 2,500 course enrollments since 1995, 1,000 of those this year. Offering 85 courses, Jones has a curriculum that conveys a bachelor's and master's in business communication and 30 certificate programs. It recently launched an MBA program.

"Our vision is really to serve a global student," says Pamela Pease, president of Jones International, headquartered in Englewood, Colo. "We have students in 45 countries today. Most people spend more than 40 hours a week working. They change careers five times. What we do is all about allowing adult learners to have flexibility and convenience."

For such students, face-to-face learning in a classroom is far less important than convenience. While Currier says she likes online classes, she admits she would, in fact, take more face-to-face classes if it were not for the traffic and not wanting to leave her son. Ms. Gutter, however, thinks online relationships among classmates and professors are better than traditional classes.

"We have many colleges around here where I could have gotten that face-to-face contact," she says. "But I found the rapport and friendships that developed with classmates and professors online were remarkable. Even though we were not close by, we [students] collaborated on projects from all these distant locations. I still keep up with some of them."

Skeptics contend that online learning is faddish, an update to the correspondence course. Others see a fundamental shift toward customized, asynchronous learning geared to a new economy.

Online courses soar

"E-learning space is the fastest-growing slice of the for-profit higher-education market," Mr. Sandler says. "I don't know of any university of any size that's not looking at scaling delivery of their courses by putting them on the Web."

As of 1998, there were more than 54,000 online distance courses, the US Department of Education reports. About 84 percent of four-year colleges are expected to offer some such courses by 2002, up from 62 percent in 1998, IDC says - and community colleges will soar to 90 percent, up from 58 percent.

Near the front of this pack are a gaggle of for-profit online schools like the University of Phoenix, Jones International University, Devry's Keller Graduate School of Management, Cardean University, Capella University, and others.

For their part, giant brick-and-mortar universities are weighing partnerships with dotcoms like Blackboard, WebCT, and ecollege. The University of Oregon will this fall offer its first all-online master's in information management.

Others are further ahead. OnlineLearning.net converted a chunk of the curriculum at the University of California at Los Angeles. And UMUC, Currier's school, has hundreds of courses online. Since 1994, it has put 15 undergraduate and 10 graduate degrees online. Last year saw 40,000 online course enrollments, up from 20,000 the year before.

Slower off the mark are the elite schools. Harvard Business School Publishing, for example, is dipping a toe in the water by putting some courses online. Brown University, Amherst College, Williams College, and Wellesley College are weighing partnerships with Global Education Network, a company founded by two Williams professors to repackage and distribute classes over the Net. And Columbia University, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Carnegie-Mellon, and the London School of Economics are already joining with UNext.com to create Cardean University.

But the online phenomenon means not only a change in how schools deliver courses, but a potential shift in their relationships with their own faculty.

A few professors with star power are beginning to realize they can market themselves as a brand, rather than pump their home university. Arthur Miller, the well-known Harvard University School of Law professor, is helping Concord University School of Law - an online law school - develop its curriculum. Dr. Miller's persona and teaching style are key ingredients in the mix, much to the consternation of Harvard.

Is Miller's course his - or Harvard's? In the rising debate over intellectual property, Harvard has fired a warning shot across the Miller juggernaut's bow. It's not yet clear if he'll slow down.

Industry shakeout

For the pioneers of online education, though, this is no time to get weak knees.

"There's a new education venture on-line announced every day," says William Noyes, president of Magellan University, a virtual university that opened in 1997. "There's no question this industry is going through a shakeout. Those that survive will be the ones with solid content and sound finances."

Magellan, which like other young online universities is still seeking accreditation, has gotten around this sticky problem by selling courses that train people to pass computer industry certification tests - replacing any need for a degree. Eventually, though, the school will be certified, Dr. Noyes says. "A lot of big institutions are going to get bashed in coming years - they're going to find their big physical plant can't be supported anymore," he says. "Does someone go to Magellan or to Harvard? That's a question for the future. They have their reputation. We have to build one."

*E-mail claytonm@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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