- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 20, 2003

College-by-computer, the “virtual revolution” in higher education, continues apace as more than 3 million online students pursue degrees without setting foot inside campus classrooms.

“During the 1990s, distance-education availability, course offerings, and enrollments increased rapidly,” nearly doubling between the 1997-98 and 2000-01 school years, says the U.S. Education Department’s latest study of distance education.

The Internet has become a boon to higher education as institutions struggle to boost student enrollment and tuition income while facing government budget constraints, says the report.

About 10 percent of all college students in the United States are fulfilling at least part of their undergraduate and graduate degree requirements online, the report says.

John Bailey, the Education Department’s director of education technology policy, said in a telephone briefing that 56 percent of the nation’s two- and four-year colleges and universities offer courses online.

The schools offered 127,400 different distance-education courses in the 2000-01 school year, he said, and 1,330 college-level degree and certificate programs now are designed to be completed entirely online.

The report says online students are mostly women older than 24, either married with children or independent with full-time jobs. Many online undergraduate students live in rural areas, and more than 10 percent are Alaskans or American Indians.

“One critical component of the expansion of distance-education is the perception that it offers the potential for making big money,” Thomas J. Kriger, research and legislation director for United University Professions, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a critique of distance education.

Roseann Runte, president of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, has presented the Virginia General Assembly with a $20 million proposal for adding 10,000 students to the university’s current enrollment of 20,105 over the next five years, primarily by expanding the statewide TeleTechNet program.

TeleTechNet offers distance-learning courses in partnership with the state’s 23 community colleges.

Old Dominion boasts one of the nation’s five largest distance-learning programs, including more than 25,000 statewide students and 3,000 active-duty Navy members.

A consortium of colleges and universities offers more than 2,000 courses and 90 degree programs to military recruits through distance education.

Ms. Runte said in an interview that the reasons for UDC’s proposal were economic: to help the General Assembly hold down subsidies to state colleges and universities, to help ODU increase enrollment and meet costs with current facilities, and to help working students who can’t afford full-time, on-campus degree programs.

“Going to school year-round via computer, you could graduate in 2 years,” she said. “And with the technology that we have [at 45 sites around the state], you’re never 30 minutes from a TeleTechNet site.”

ODU already offers students at two-year community colleges third- and fourth-year course offerings so they can earn baccalaureate degrees online. “We’ve got 25,000 students currently enrolled,” Ms. Runte said.

While administrators have embraced distance education, academic faculty are debating the technology.

Mr. Kriger worries about a loss of scholarly excellence when students do not attend traditional classes with professors and other students.

“Student and industry preferences certainly matter in designing curricula, but if pleasing the customer is the pre-eminent value, there is a real danger that the curriculum will not be coherent, rigorous enough or broad enough to meet the student’s long-term interests,” he said in the AFT critique, “A Virtual Revolution: Trends in the Expansion of Distance Education.”

Ms. Runte disagrees. For faculty, she said, “If you’re really doing some distance learning and teaching with the technology, it’s a really wonderful way to make yourself examine what it is you’re doing in the classroom, what the message is, what is the best way to get the message to the students, what are the questions people might ask, how to figure your entire class out.”

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