So where's the beef?
There's high quality online, but it takes real work to find it


A decade ago, if you wanted to further your education and keep your job and continue to live in the same house and send your children to the same school, your only decent choices were the universities and community colleges within commuting distance. Never mind which institutions nationwide had the best programs and top professors in your field. You couldn't even consider them. Oh, how times have changed. These days, you can still choose between State U. and the local community college, but add to the mix the 2,000-plus institutions, some of the very best in the world, that offer online courses and degrees accessible from anywhere with a computer and a modem. Suddenly, getting ahead in life is a lot easier–and a whole lot more complicated.

It's easier because the Internet has kicked learning out of the classroom and into cyberspace, making education available anywhere, anytime, even "just in time." Students in Turkey sign up for business degrees from American universities. Working mothers in Denver can squeeze in statistics courses from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania between the workday and family responsibilities. Overachieving high schoolers add college calculus to their secondary-school schedules. Itinerant travelers log in to virtual classrooms whenever and wherever they please. More than 2 million people have taken online courses so far.

But the vastness of offerings only makes E-learning more complicated. In the past few years, 70 percent of American universities have put at least one course online, and by 2005 that may grow to 90 percent. The range of schools posting their intellectual wares on the Web is already staggering: from modest Chattanooga State Technical Community College and its 30 courses, to Rochester Institute of Technology's five bachelor of science degrees, to the University of Illinois's 10 different master's programs encompassing 220 courses. The range of fields covered is almost as astounding: While most curricula lean toward business and technology–at last count, 600 marketing courses were available online–students can still choose among psychology, engineering, and education programs, to name just a few.

Pitfalls. For anyone thinking of jumping into this new education world, the questions present themselves quickly: how to find the right courses or the appropriate programs–and how to find quality. The answers lie in understanding a number of issues: How has online education developed, and is it here to stay? What are the pitfalls in signing up for a course? Who does this kind of education work best for? What are the signs of engaging, enriching, and career-building coursework? (Helpful answers to these questions can be found in this and the following stories, and in the accompanying U.S. News tables.)

It seems fair to say that distance education has had a checkered past. The correspondence courses at the turn of the 20th century promised the equivalent of "anytime, anywhere" education but instead delivered shoddy lessons and slapdash instruction, driving dropout rates through the roof. But people still wanted to learn from a distance. Indeed, in the early 1960s, two DC-6 airplanes flew over Indiana beaming lessons by satellite into Midwestern classrooms. With each new technological innovation–telephone, film, radio, audiotapes, and television–distance education rebounded. By the 1980s, many colleges were offering courses and programs that taught through correspondence, teleconferencing, videotaped lectures, or some combination of all three. But by the late 1990s, most schools had moved to take the entire experience online.

Schools rushed to the Web for a slew of reasons: Some found the possibility of reaching thousands of new students intoxicating, while others wanted to take the lead in developing new educational technology. More than a few thought the dotcom mirage would become a pool of cold, hard cash. Some universities set up their online operations in separate, hoped-for, profit centers. Many were just afraid of being left behind.

Still, throughout the history of distance education, critics have questioned whether students could really be taught well from far away. Those concerns have been revived with online education. Detractors worry that online courses sacrifice intellectual sophistication for convenience, that they foster isolation among students, and that they dehumanize the process of learning. E-learning may "inhibit rather than promote good education," charges the American Federation of Teachers. Faculty fret that online education forces them to surrender control of their academic work to administrators and business people, who will warp it into something profitable. And with the continuing shakeout among E-learning companies and universities (story, Page 58), students could be left in the untenable position of paying for classes at a school that no longer exists.

Despite such worries, online education is here to stay. For some students, it's their only option. As a service manager with Komatsu Mining Systems, Steve Huff heads off to remote areas for a month at a time. Yet, at 55, Huff was ready to finish his undergraduate degree. He signed up for the University of Phoenix's online baccalaureate completion program. For Huff, maintaining a 3.9 grade-point average while logging in from places as far away as Aikhal, Siberia, a mining town near the Arctic Circle, hasn't been that difficult. Finding the right program to begin with was the challenge. "There are hundreds out there," he says.

For-profit University of Phoenix, the largest private university in the United States, is an interesting case in point. With campuses in 21 states, the school currently enrolls over 90,000 students. But roughly 25,000 of them have opted for one of the school's 18 online degrees. At the University of Maryland-University College, the biggest provider of distance education in the nation, students signed up for 44,000 courses last year. The university expects enrollment to triple in the next decade. As if those weren't enough options, several giant companies, like General Motors, are setting up their own online learning centers for their workers. And a host of other for-profit companies have sprung up to capitalize on what is already a multibillion-dollar market worldwide. Businesses such as NETg, Click2learn, Quisic, and SmartForce formed to sell to individuals and corporations discrete modules that instruct students in business practices–subjects ranging from laying off employees to developing software. (Indeed, for some E-learning companies the how-to-fire modules turned out to be prescient: UNext has laid off 52 workers, and two months ago, Pensare went under.)

Yet despite the economic tumult, E-learning remains a sturdy industry. "Anybody that says online education is just another promise is ignoring what online education is already doing," says Bob Kerrey, president of the New School in New York City and former senator from Nebraska. "It's allowing people to learn in ways that were impossible before." The models vary greatly. The U.S. Army War College's two-year program in strategic studies requires book reading, paper writing, and thoughtful Internet discussions among its 300 participants. Meanwhile, Harvard Business Online uses spreadsheets, case studies, and video clips to teach a quick course on finance for managers. With programs like Harvard's, students can move at their own pace and take time to review lessons. Students don't just receive information online, say advocates, they wrestle with knowledge and make it their own.

Studies indicate that online learning can be effective. Thomas Russell of North Carolina State University reviewed research on all types of distance learning and concluded that there was "no significant difference" between inside- and outside-classroom education. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds the development of university online courses, came to the same conclusion. Says program director Frank Mayadas, "If the same professor is offering the same course and has offered it online and on campus, the results are equivalent and even tend to favor off-campus learning." Arizona State University compared test results of its online M.B.A. students with those enrolled in the traditional program and found that the online students scored higher.

Gold rush. Still, while the formula can be effective, many online courses are not. Some providers, including universities, bypassed educational quality in their rush toward Internet gold. "Much of corporate E-learning is underwhelming," admits Sam Herring, executive vice president at Lguide, a company that evaluates online education. Indeed, the company reviewed 70 providers for an unnamed consulting company and found only two that it could recommend. Others promise a high degree of interactivity with the instructor and other students, but few frequent the class chat rooms and the professor doesn't return E-mails. Even big-name schools don't guarantee quality. Brian Dalton, 26, complains that the professor of the biochemistry course he took through the University of California-Berkeley sometimes didn't answer all the queries in his E-mails. When he did, the response would be cursory. "He didn't want to be bothered with questions," says Dalton. "I had the feeling that there were lower standards [than at the traditional university] for the professor's involvement in the material, answering questions, and grading." Dalton received an A+.

Successfully venturing into online education, therefore, requires some serious thought. One question worth considering is whether an online program will give you the full breadth of education you seek. While at least 35 institutions offer bachelor's degrees online, it's worth noting that much of the four-year college experience at a brick-and-mortar institution cannot be replicated over the Internet. (Some places are trying, though: Kentucky Virtual University, for instance, offers virtual college sports and "music to study by" to online students.) And at the graduate level, skeptics ask whether E-learning can be the proper mode for educating nurses, for instance, or teachers.

Real time. The next thing to examine is how you learn best. Because the Internet is so flexible, courses can be created in a variety of shapes and sizes, from streaming-video lectures in real time to instructorless simulations to E-mail-heavy university courses that require students to read books. Students can pick the format that best suits them. "Without question, adjusting to differentiated learning styles is one of the greatest benefits of online learning," says Carol Vallone, chief executive officer of WebCT, a company that provides the technical backbone for hundreds of universities' online courses. The company has even developed a program that modifies how content is delivered to different students in the same class based on their learning styles.

Students who thrive on discussion and interaction with peers should consider programs that emphasize communication among instructor, student, and classmates. Indeed, some proponents of online education argue that its ability to foster thoughtful discussion–through E-mail, chat rooms, and discussion boards–may be the technology's greatest strength. At the well-regarded Walden University, which has been offering Ph.D.'s online since 1993 to students some of whom have gone on to teach at Yale University, serve in the Bush administration, and head up companies, faculty prepare weekly discussion topics for chat rooms and participate in extensive E-mail conversations with students. Other schools, like the University of Baltimore, ensure student-professor interaction by requiring students to log on at least three times a week and grading them on their contributions to the discussion boards. At the end of such courses, there can be over 3,000 postings on group discussion boards. For Wendy Sahli, 30, an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland-University College, getting gobs of individual attention from a professor via E-mail was one of the best aspects of her online coursework: "In traditional classrooms, class time is precious. [With E-mail] I feel like I can ask the instructor questions without distracting the other students."

Play hard. Other schools promote student and professorial camaraderie by requiring on-campus visits. Ohio University's M.B.A. Without Boundaries program mandates four-day weekend visits to the school every three months as well as two-week stints twice in the summer. During these residencies, students complete group projects, take overview classes with professors, and generally get to know one another. "We work hard, play hard, and learn a lot," says Tom Hammann, a second-year student and full-time business unit manager at General Mills in Lodi, Calif.

While communication-based classes can be either synchronous (students meet at a specific time online for discussions or lectures) or asynchronous (students can "attend" class to read notes or participate in conversations anytime they please), courses that revolve around solving real-world problems are primarily asynchronous, and often instructorless. Companies like UNext and Cognitive Arts, which provides courses for corporate clients and universities, have worked with psychologists to develop sophisticated exercises that students work through at their own pace. Their mantra is "learn by doing." For a Columbia University course in C++ programming developed by Cognitive Arts, students assume the role of entry-level programmers working on a project at a software company. Memos from the "team leader" outline each assignment. As students complete the assignments, they send them to a "personal tutor," who grades and returns them. There is no teaching in the traditional sense.

Unfortunately, courses with little instructor interaction have high dropout rates–sometimes over 60 percent. Clark Bryant, 19, gave up on his online technical writing class at Chattanooga State Technical Community College after less than two weeks. It was boring, he says. "If it just sits there, I won't do it." This fall, he enrolled in the same course on campus. Not everyone is disciplined enough to finish a course without instructor prodding, says Paula Moreira, vice president for integrated learning at New Horizons, a company that provides information-technology training. She admits that only 50 percent of the students who start New Horizons' self-paced Web courses finish them. However, 90 percent of the students who sign up for video or webcast courses–where teachers broadcast lectures and hold discussions in real time–complete them, about the same rate as the classroom-based courses.

All-stars. One thing hasn't changed from traditional education: It's still up to the teacher to produce a stimulating educational experience. But online instructors are rarely the academic all-stars that some universities brag about. Providers have taken to "unbundling" the professorial role–enlisting high-profile professors to design courses while part-time instructors actually "facilitate" the course. "All-star cast" is how Glenn Jones, founder of Jones International University, refers to his school's faculty. "We bifurcate the teaching process," Jones says, so that professors from top-notch schools set up the class and decide the syllabus while "teaching faculty," only about two thirds of whom have Ph.D.'s, regularly interact with students. Even schools with their own batch of high-quality academics, like Cornell, resort to this method for their online courses. While the teachers could be talented instructors–and often have real-world experience in the field they're teaching–students hoping to learn from their discipline's top theorists might be disappointed. Even courses taught by well-meaning professors face problems if there are too many students in the class because the instructors can't keep up with E-mail traffic. When Walt Coker, who teaches education courses for Northern Arizona University Online, has more than 40 students in a class, he'll often receive more than 300 E-mails each day. "I will try to have a response within 48 hours," he says, but sometimes he just can't do it.

As with on-campus education, students need to ensure that they'll have enough institutional support to finish their degree. Indeed, online providers are only slowly realizing the importance of student services. "People take it for granted on a campus that they can ask someone for help," says Carol Twigg, executive director of the Center for Academic Transformation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. Experienced, good-quality schools, she says, offer mentoring, librarians, and technical help online, not only at 3 in the afternoon but at 3 a.m. as well. Rio Salado Community College in Tempe, Ariz., offers a service called "beep a tutor": Students can E-mail academic questions to a pager-toting tutor who will call them back within a few hours. The school's tutoring center and library also host live chat rooms on the Web.

Luckily, there are some shortcuts to finding a good online program. One way to find the best is to limit your search to providers approved by one of the six regional accrediting bodies, the association of the specific field you plan to study, or a state agency. Accreditation assures you that the institution has qualified faculty, sophisticated instructional materials, and a well-stocked library. However, as with all things Internet, the situation is more complicated than it appears: A lack of accreditation doesn't necessarily mean a lack of quality. For example, the University of Phoenix mainly employs adjunct teachers. That means the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business won't give the stamp of approval to its M.B.A. program, but the National League for Nursing passed its nursing program because that organization does not require a staff of tenured, full-time faculty.

But can an online education truly compare to learning in the classroom? Even some online boosters say no. "The closer you are to Socrates," says Bob Scales, CEO of Walden University, "the farther you should be from distance learning." Carol Twigg of the Center for Academic Transformation disagrees: It's the classroom that's inadequate, she argues. "That's where one size fits all."

© 2002--U.S.