Clicks vs. Bricks in Higher Ed

Army taps into virtual universities for its soldiers

The US military receives kudos for defending America but little credit for changing America.

Yet it's been on the cutting edge of many social changes, such as the integration of blacks and then women. It has trained leaders who went on to run large organizations. It's poured billions into scientific research - which, most notably, resulted in the Internet.

Now it plans to tap the Internet to give soldiers a chance at earning a degree in higher education.

The Army, noticing the growing market for "distance learning" (teaching over the Web), has quietly announced it hopes to spend $600 million over the next six years for online courses with accredited universities and other post-secondary schools.

That's a big chunk of change for a fledgling industry that promises to turn education on its head. Suddenly, more than a million GIs from Fort Bragg to the DMZ can be virtual college students whenever they have spare time - a smart incentive to join the Army.

But by boosting the distance-learning market and becoming its largest broker, the Army will help challenge the medieval notion that all college students must go to expensive bricks-and-mortar campuses - and pay high tuition and other costs.

Until recently, universities have tip-toed into this new market. Virtual classrooms, while cheaper and convenient, still face a test over their ability to stir a student's thinking as much as face-to-face discussions with teachers (although two-way video and well-tended chat rooms can help that). And e-colleges don't offer social activities and sports that are part of learning.

The Army's move may convince many more colleges to invest in Web campuses. They have already been spurred by the few, for-profit online schools that are showing the way.

The number of online students may reach 2.2 million by 2002, according to one industry estimate, up from 710,000 in 1998. Career-changing adults in the "new economy" are finding such e-learning attractive. And professors with star power are looking for wider audiences. A few states are even setting up virtual high schools.

E-learning is coming of age now that the US military has smartly offered up a market of a million-plus potential students.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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