Thomson Buys, Then Shuts Down Harcourt's Higher Education Web Site. (News: Noteworthy People, Programs, Funding, and Technological Advances in the World of Higher Education)

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Faced with the prospect of pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, to properly brand it, Thomson Corp. shut down the Harcourt Higher Education: An Online College Web site it picked up when Thomson bought some of Harcourt's assets for $2 billion earlier in the year. The move came as a surprise to some, but it is a cautionary tale of the difficulties of establishing an online distance education venture (www. harcourthighered.com) in an already crowded market. In recent years, the distance education market has exploded with companies trying to reach not only traditional four-year students, but also the millions of adults who are thinking about brushing up on certain skills, finishing their college education or learning whole new endeavors.

"It was so early in the game for them (Harcourt) that they didn't have a lot of customers for the Web site," Kristen McCarthy, a Thomson spokesperson, told Matrix. McCarthy did not know the exact number of customers the Web site had, but Matrix estimates that it was fewer than 25.

"It did not fit into Thomson's future e-learning plans," she added.

Just what those plans are was not disclosed. Attempts to reach Ron Dunn, who heads up Thomson's online initiatives, were unsuccessful.

The Harcourt site offered dozens of individual courses in several core higher-education disciplines, and offered bachelor's and associate's degrees in:

* Science in Business

* Science in Health Studies

* Science in Information Technology.

In addition, the online college also offered certificate programs in:

* E-Commerce

* Marketing Research and Analysis

* Marketing

* Health Administration

* Health Services Marketing

* Health Services Accounting

* IT Project Management

* IT Network Systems Integration

* IT Internet Practitioner.

Part of the problem for Harcourt--and other online distance learning companies--lies in what kind of alternatives they can provide potential students. While Harcourt spent millions creating its online college, using its respected curriculum content to flesh out its course load, it lacked a bricks-and-mortar alternative for students who want to meet occasionally with a live instructor face-to-face.

To some, this may sound as though it defeats the purpose of online distance education, but not to market analyst Peter Appert, managing director of Deutsche Banc Alex Brown, who believes it was a drawback for Harcourt. …