This spring, Jeanne Elmore will walk down the aisle in cap and gown to receive her master's degree from George Washington University. Unlike the other graduates, it will be the first time in years she has stepped foot on campus - or seen her professors.
Mrs. Elmore, of Woodbridge, Va., is one of a growing number of "cyber-students" earning her degree at home via personal computer. By logging on to the Internet and taping lectures from a local cable station, she can learn at her leisure and e-mail homework assignments in her slippers.
The ultimate in high-tech learning, this confluence of education and technology has come to be known in academia as "distance learning." And it has educators envisioning a day when cyber-universities will compete with traditional campuses for students.
Bill Lynch, director of distance learning for GWU's Educational Technology Leadership program, sees distance learning as an ideal educational tool for working parents.
"It's for people who for a variety of reasons just can't make the trip to the universities - people who have responsibilities that make the whole rigor of a university impossible," he says.
Take Mrs. Elmore, for example. For the past four years, she has fit her on-line course work in ETL around her full-time job as an instructional system specialist. Without this flexibility, she says, going back to school simply would not have been feasible.
"When you have a 40-hour job split into nine-hour days, to have to go downtown for school would be a real hassle," Mrs. Elmore says.
It has also saved her a bundle in costs, such as room and board, parking and social fees. As a virtual student, she is charged only for the classes she takes.
Despite its convenience, distance learning on the Internet has a very short track record, and no one knows for sure whether students (or the universities) will benefit from it in the long run.
Some fear it may encourage universities to downsize since fewer professors and classrooms are needed to accommodate on-line students. They also wonder how smaller schools will compete for students when geographical boundaries are no longer a factor for enrollment.
But Mr. Lynch doesn't foresee distance technology replacing the traditional campus.
"I believe some people will always go to school in the traditional manner," he says. "Ten years from now, students will still be signing up on campus to go to GWU and getting up at 8 a.m. to go to classes."
Mrs. Elmore agrees. As the mother of two college-age students, she says campus life is essential for developing social skills in young adults.
"People get all worked up about universities closing, but there will always be a need for people like my son's age to get away from home and experience life on campus," she says.
"I think he needs to be on campus for social as well as academic reasons. To me, a campus isn't there just for education for a young adult. It's there to allow you to leave home and to get out on your own."
However, there are those who see distance learning as a universal fix-all for higher-education problems. …