Campus on a keyboard

Online learning has been a boon to millions. But is it a convenience - or a threat to all that's best about college?

For Sr. Airman Aaron Fisher, every day he and his fellow soldiers spent in post-Hussein Iraq required vigilance. But avoiding bullets and bombs wasn't the only thing on Mr. Fisher's mind. Some days he was also cramming for a math test.

Fisher was released last month from the United States Air Force after a tour of duty working on USAF satellite communications - his third Middle East assignment in three years. While overseas, he continued uninterrupted with his bachelor's degree studies via the Internet at Grantham University, an online college in Slidell, La. The US government is paying for his tuition.

Military duties made attending college impossible for Fisher until he chose an online program, he says. "The ability to take my classes while on deployment, and have my questions answered anywhere in the world, was a dream come true," he says.

Like Fisher, many Americans, both students and employers, see online learning as an acceptable - and perhaps far more convenient - alternative to traditional schools.

But in the eyes of some, it's a controversial development that promises to shake up the practice, regulation, and funding of college education in the US.

Distance learning represents "the extreme commercialization of higher education," says humanities scholar Morris Berman, author of "The Twilight of American Culture." It's a development that threatens "the sacred space of the classroom," according to technology historian David Noble, author of "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education."

The debate will become more than merely academic for US lawmakers as early as this spring.

Up for review is the Higher Education Act, which includes a 1992 law that withholds low-interest, deferred-payment federal tuition loans from students at colleges whose on-campus enrollment is below 50 percent. Several bills before Congress propose easing the 1992 rule. The law was originally aimed at preventing federal aid from being used by "diploma mills."

But critics say it hurts students who want to complete accredited online courses that enjoy military and civilian recognition. US Sen. Michael Enzi, a Wyoming Republican, says "more and more people are beginning to understand that distance learning is a legitimate course of study."

Some 3 million students were enrolled in online courses in the US in 2002, estimates Frank Mayadas of New York's Sloan Foundation, which studies education issues.

Accredited online colleges and universities are the cutting edge of a new era in American education, "especially for the 83 million adults aged 25 to 54 who have no college degree," says Grantham University chairman Tom Macon. Grantham, a 53-year-old college that once operated five residential campuses, adopted distance learning decades ago when the military asked it to provide correspondence courses to troops overseas.

The school introduced Web-based courses in the 1990s. Last October, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote to thank Grantham for supporting US armed forces members and recognized its "great morale building effort."

But Mark Smith, director of government relations for the American Association of University Professors, is unconvinced.

"In many ways, there is no substitute for the give-and-take of the classroom," he says. "A good higher education doesn't require only the transmission of facts, but the development of critical thinking skills."

Distance learning can be useful in more limited applications, Mr. Smith agrees. "We're not against distance learning and online education in and of themselves," he says. "Some of our members use these as supplementary tools to add to the educational experience. But we're concerned about the quality of education that results when electronic media become the only ones used."

For some critics of online learning, the Internet is a tool that can legitimately be used for many types of vocational training - but not to replace the college experience.

Professor Noble adamantly opposes the adoption of large-scale online education by traditional campuses concerned with education of a "nonvocational" nature.

But he does not similarly oppose dedicated online institutions that provide practical job-skills training. On the contrary, he says, these "may well answer a need."

He also makes a distinction between publicly funded universities, which he adamantly believes should not be allowed to adopt "commercialized" online programs, and privately owned institutions run as businesses. It is up to the consumer, he says, to judge the quality of the courses these provide.

Promoters of online study say the quality of degrees provided by accredited Internet institutions is borne out by graduates' earning power.

Mr. Macon - who is studying for a bachelor's degree on his own online - became a successful entrepreneur before discovering Internet education, but says he lost a business opportunity when it was learned he had only a high school diploma.

"I realized how much more I could have achieved if I had had a degree - a situation shared by millions of Americans for whom a traditional college program isn't feasible," he says.

USAF Master Sgt. Ronald McNabb, a fellow student of Fisher's, is one of those Americans. Currently stationed in Montgomery, Ala., he spends lunch breaks and free hours studying online for a degree from Touro College in Cypress, Calif.

On his discharge in 2005, Master Sargeant McNabb expects to have a second degree, qualifying him to be a potential contractor to the Defense Department at almost double his current salary. His degree, like Fisher's, will be paid for by Uncle Sam.

McNabb qualified last year as a systems analyst with a bachelor's degree. He says, "I've been married 22 years and my daughter Ashton is 6. I woke up one morning and asked myself, 'What future do I have?' So I went back to school. With my Air Force duties, I had doubts I could do it. But studying online worked."

Online learning seems a boon for people whose circumstances make it hard to attend classes.

Judy Stuart, a single mother in Crosby, Texas, was holding down the latest in a series of jobs that included driving a long-haul truck when she decided to go to school online. Today, she works for a chemical company and is slated for a promotion when she receives her bachelor's degree next year.

Joshua Masters, an on-campus graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, was diagnosed with leukemia some two years ago.

"If I'd been at a standard brick-and-mortar university, I would have had to put my studies on hold for a year during treatment," he says. "But because I was then obtaining my first degree with an online college I was able to continue studying without losing any time."

Fisher says he would actually have preferred the face-to-face contact of a traditional campus, but given the realities of a military lifestyle, that wouldn't have been an option.

"I'm out of uniform now, but my wife is in the military and subject to transfer, so continuation of online study makes sense," he says. For Fisher, the bottom line is the flexibility of Internet study, the fact that the school's accreditation is as good as that of any on-campus college, and that the military has recognized it for financing purposes.

Ms. Stuart says her experience with online learning was wonderful but also served to challenge one of the myths about Internet study: the notion that it doesn't require as much commitment and discipline as conventional classroom courses. If anything, Stuart believes she worked harder than most traditional on-site students.

She says she can provide firsthand evidence that "the idea that distance learning is easy is a misconception."

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