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
If you didn't want to march to class that was fine. You might not
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
"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
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
Yet the promise of a slice of a $240 billion higher-education
market is overshadowed by the specter of coming mergers, buyouts,
"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. …