There are few sure things in the dotcom world. But one of them is the rapid growth of "distance learning" via the Internet. From a few hundred thousand students taking online college courses in the mid-'90s, there are now well over 2 million.
It's estimated that nearly three quarters of two- and four-year colleges and universities in the United States offer some form of online education. And a few institutions have sprung up that are fully Web-based. The Army has greatly expanded the market by offering all of its personnel a chance to earn a degree online from anywhere in the world.
This rush to e-learning has the potential to revolutionize higher education, especially in bringing down the cost of college degrees and making good teachers more available.
Traditional bricks-and-mortar schools are struggling to adjust. Many popular professors want to market their courses online. Copyright issues concerning the use of texts and other materials online are simmering. University associations are trying to figure out how to accredit virtual colleges. And re-creating the learning experience of an on-campus college in an online setting still needs perfecting.
Such issues can, and will, be sorted out by educators, state education officials, and lawyers. The growth of online education demands that.
Lawmakers in Washington have a part to play, too. Federal rules imposed years ago to protect the education-buying public from fly-by-night correspondence schools are ensnaring online distance-learning as well.
One rule requires institutions whose students get federal education aid to offer at least 50 percent of their courses on-site - in a traditional classroom. Another requires students getting aid to spend a minimum of 12 hours a week in supervised study and instruction.
Such rules may have been a reasonable response to some kinds of education fraud. Fraud concerns need to be addressed. But today these particular rules keep many low- and moderate-income Americans, who need federal aid, from taking advantage of the growing array of college and professional courses available online.
Congress ought to reconsider these legal barriers to learning via the Internet as soon as possible. This would be in line with the recommendations of a panel it commissioned to study Web-based education.
Lawmakers must be more nimble in responding to the needs of a society rapidly using new technologies to improve itself. Distance learning needs support, not barriers.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society