Click 'N Learn ; No Traffic, No 9 A.M. Classes. Learning Online Is Booming - and May Fundamentally Change the Face of Higher Education

Article excerpt

For eight centuries, university students have trudged to classrooms where higher learning was dispensed face to face by a frequently learned, sometimes wizened, occasionally clueless professor.

If you didn't want to march to class that was fine. You might not graduate.

Now Stephanie Currier, a Washington, D.C., housewife and mother of a three-year-old who grabs all the attention he can get, is breaking that time-tested mold.

So far, Ms. Currier has completed three online university classes over the Internet - two Spanish classes and a writing class. Sitting at home in front of her computer around midnight, sometimes in her bathrobe, she comments on other students' essays, files her own homework, and writes questions to her professor, whose answers she picks up the next day.

Her goal: get her bachelor's, then a master's degree in education so she can teach.

She's well on her way. This summer Currier took History 432: the US Civil War, delivered to her home computer over the phone lines from a University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Web site. Her professor, Thomas Baughn, communicates with her - and 39 other students (including one in Zimbabwe) from his home computer in Silver Springs, Md.

"I never could have taken regular classes," Currier says. "The traffic is too intense. At first, I wanted to find a part-time job. Then I realized for the same time investment I could finish my bachelor's online and be with my son."

Like Currier, about 2.2 million students are expected to be enrolled in on-line learning courses by 2002, up from 710,000 in 1998, according to International Data Corporation (IDC), a Framingham, Mass., research firm. The key driver: necessity and convenience.

"This is the next step in American higher education," says Gerald Heeger, UMUC president. "I think the grand promise of an online university is its ability, ultimately, to offer a very rich learning environment worldwide to people who might not otherwise have access to a sophisticated education."

But even with its glowing promise of greater access to higher education, not everyone is enthralled by the changes.

"Some of what is happening is good - some is not good," says Mark Smith, associate director of government relations for the American Association of University Professors. "Curriculum decisions need to be discussed and approved by faculty so you ensure the quality. Right now, market forces are pushing this. It's a 'keep ahead of the Joneses' mentality that's driving this more than, 'hey, we've found this great way to provide learning.' "

Nearly 50 percent of today's rising post-secondary enrollment is adults age 25 years or older, the Department of Education reports. That's because in a knowledge-based economy where four or five careers may become typical, lifelong learning is more than a buzz phrase.

Online courses are a dream come true for adult learners who could care less about pep rallies and who cannot stand yet another commute through traffic just to sit in a classroom.

Recognizing the appeal, venture capitalists have funnelled millions into the enterprise. But the market is fickle, as those who run education dotcoms found when tech stocks tumbled in March. Now the industry is in a classic shake out.

On the cutting edge are young public "edu-companies" like CollegeLink.com, Lightspan, Student Advantage, VarsityBooks. All are looking for a niche as a supplier, gateway, or service provider to online colleges - or to bricks-and-mortar universities trying to put courses online.

Yet the promise of a slice of a $240 billion higher-education market is overshadowed by the specter of coming mergers, buyouts, and bankruptcies.

"Nobody really knows how successful the delivery of higher education is going to be online via for-profit companies," says Michael Sandler, chairman of EduVentures. …

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