- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2001

Summer Brown, a behavioral and social sciences major at the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi, doesnt have time to attend class.Ms. Brown works two jobs, and campus is a good 45-minute drive away from her home in Odenton, Md.

Instead, she lets her class come to her, or at least to her personal computer.

Ms. Brown, 23, is part of an educational trend, taking classes online, that some say will dramatically reshape the way students look at higher education.

Distance education isn´t new. It has existed in various forms, chiefly through correspondence-style written courses, for 100 years, says Janet Poley, president and chief executive officer of the American Distance Education Consortium, based at the University of Nebraska.

But the Internet´s ability to move mammoth reams of data all over the globe instantly has transformed distance education.

"The impact in the U.S. has been already very substantial," Ms. Poley says.

Richard Riley, secretary of education under President Clinton, said in a February 2000 speech in Durham, N.C., "Technology or 'e-learning´ will penetrate every aspect of American education and change it."

More than 35 states have either an online-only university or a statewide group that studies or promotes distance education, according to the Instructional Telecommunications Council. This D.C.-based group represents nearly 600 learning institutions in the United States and Canada to promote such learning methods.

It is not just smaller colleges or for-profit companies looking to capitalize on the Internet.

This month, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., received grants totaling $11 million from the Andrew W. Mellon and William and Flora Hewlett foundations to post course materials online, plus create software for Internet-based courses.

Closer to home, at George Washington University, students can take entire master´s degree programs online.

'Adjustment to stay on track´

Ms. Brown is taking one online class per semester, while juggling her workload.

At first, "It was difficult for me. I´m a better visual-audio learner," she says. "It was an adjustment to stay on track.

"I didn´t have time for interaction with other students," Ms. Brown adds. "But there were study groups. They definitely pushed working together" in real time.

But now, with one online class, human sexuality, completed, she is better prepared.

"It´s great to go home, put a load of laundry in … then check your schedule online," says Ms. Brown, who submits class papers via the World Wide Web but takes final examinations in person. "I thought it was a great experience. I plan on getting my degree this way."

She reserves the right to skip the online world for certain courses.

"When I take math, I´d go into the classroom. I need hands-on help with the math," she says.

University of Maryland University College offers 24 complete bachelor´s and master´s degree programs online.

Its computer-based course load represents a fraction of the work locally involved in such classes, though.

Marie Tibor, director of marketing and communications for the Greater Washington Initiative, says the D.C. metropolitan region features a wealth of "e-learning" groups, from universities to private firms offering education content online, such as the District´s Blackboard Inc.

Her group, which promotes the region as a science and technological hub, is assembling a directory of all local organizations involved with distance learning via the Web.

She credits an "educated work force" for why the region attracts so much attention to modern educational styles.

'Different kind of learning´

Martin Irvine, executive director of Georgetown University´s Communication, Culture and Technology Program, says online classes are shaking up the academic world one credit at a time.

"Education is a very conservative field. Things are slow to change," Mr. Irvine says. "For some people, the idea of the learner being in control, rather than the professor, is threatening."

"A lot of people are still unfamiliar with the technology," he adds. "Some have philosophical reasons. … They still see the classroom as the best way to learn."

Mr. Irvine advises educators to stop thinking of online courses in terms of whether they are better than traditional classes.

"Think of this as a tool that enables us to do a different kind of learning," he says. "It puts the learner in the driver´s seat."

Distance education works best for mature students, who are particularly driven, Mr. Irvine says.

Universities looking to start up an online component, he warns, are in for sticker shock.

"Quality Web content is never cheap to produce," Mr. Irvine says. In the long run, though, such classes will be cheaper to operate, he predicts.

For now, the cost for online classes fluctuates, Ms. Poley says. Some universities charge about the same, while others tack on a surcharge to the standard class fees.

Limitations to Web learning

It´s still a text-based format, given the dearth of broadband access, which would permit audio and video streaming, Ms. Poley says. Online courses typically are geared toward users with standard Internet connections, which cannot download large files easily. Testing also is a concern. Every exam could conceivably be "open book," since the professor´s gaze can be hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Just because a course is available online, it doesn´t mean the students will click their way to its completion.

John Bear, co-author of "Bears´ Guide to Earning Degrees by Distance Learning," worked as the American and, later, Canadian agent for the Heriot-Watt University´s business school´s distance education program for seven years, beginning in 1991. What began as a paper-based course became heavily dependent on the Internet as the years passed.

Mr. Bear estimated about 80 percent of students never finished its online master of business administration degree program, though.

"It´s the discovery that they haven´t thought through what their life is really like," he says about why so many opted out of the program. Students missed "the serendipity, the after-class chats," he says but adds that "There was no single set of reasons," for the massive defections.

Online distance education isn´t fatally flawed, says the El Cerrito, Calif.-based author, but it may take time before students properly appreciate its scope.

'Pluses outweigh the minuses´

Sheryl Spivack, associate professor of travel and tourism at George Washington University, contends that "the pluses outweigh the minuses" for online learning.

A few of her colleagues aren´t buying into the concept, saying the classes lack the spontaneity of live classroom banter. But consider her a convert.

"For every negative thing we find, there is another thing that is intriguing," Ms. Spivack says.

For example, professors are forced to evaluate and update their course material when they translate it to their course Web sites.

While traditional classrooms intimidate shy students, everyone can participate equally in online chat rooms.

Before she begins an online class, the students take an in-person, five-day training course in which they learn the necessary technology. That way, each starts the course at the same proficiency level. It also lets students bond with their classmates.

Catherine Powell, adjunct associate professor at University of Maryland University College, says she once taught distance education courses over the phone and via TV screens

"I think the Net will replace them," says Ms. Powell, who says she has taught pregnant students online who never missed a "class," thanks to the Internet.

The time-saving benefits of online classes affect teachers, too

"There are professors who wouldn´t teach face-to-face classes any more," says Ms. Powell, who has taught Ms. Brown online.

Plus, she can educate students from around the globe and sneak in her own chores and workout regimen at the same time.

"I don´t think there is any downside because I´m always open and available to them," she says. "I check my e-mail three times a day."

Ms. Poley predicts that the future of distance education, and perhaps education in general, will feature a hybrid of Internet work and real-time lessons.

Many traditional classes already have online components, from posted syllabus material to listserv groups where the discussions spill into the classroom.

For Ms. Spivack, online distance learning is something both teachers and students will, eventually, embrace.

"You´re going to see more commercial ventures partnering with universities," she predicts. "The demand is there, no doubt about it."

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