University Net courses help pros make the grade

Vicki Earll can't get enough online learning. Earll, a National Park Service Web master, park ranger and education coordinator living in Massachusetts, took her first Internet-based course, Introduction to Online Technologies, through the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the fall of 1999 and became hooked on the concept.

"I like being on the cutting edge," Earll said via e-mail, in response to questions about her online learning experience. "I liked being able to take the course from my computer at home. ... Perhaps, most important, as a sociologist -- and futurist -- I was convinced that this was the way of future education."

She's not alone in that conviction. While there has been a lot of focus on "e-learning" as a training method for companies, universities and colleges worldwide are increasingly offering courses online, allowing busy professionals to finish degrees, earn advanced degrees or take technology-related courses that help with their jobs without putting careers on hold.

But IT professionals who might consider taking online courses as a way to boost their educations or earn certifications should be warned -- e-learning differs from taking a physical class in key ways. While many students first assume it takes less time, it often actually takes more time, say those who teach such courses or have taken them as students. Technology issues also can make online learning difficult. Bandwidth problems, connectivity turmoil and software incompatibilities all can make for a frustrating experience. [See "Sidebar: University Net Courses -- the challenges," today's wire.]However, Earll and others who have taken e-learning classes or who teach them point to the obvious advantages of convenience and the ability to take courses while continuing to work. E-learning advocates also contend that the Internet allows higher-education institutions to seek out top experts in their fields to teach courses online to students globally.

E-learning also pushes higher education away from the ages-old textbook-driven approach to teaching, which can be more static than interactive. Students who sign up for e-learning courses log on to password-protected Web sites to participate in online lectures and chats, and to get assignments and take part in discussions. With e-learning, gone are the days of instructors scribbling on chalkboards and lecturing while students take notes and listen, attentively or not. Gone also are traditional schedules.

"The courses are scheduled on a regular basis," said Sandy Oravec, the director of educational initiatives at the Foundation of the Pennsylvania Medical Society based in Harrisburg. Oravec has taken online courses so that she could then establish and oversee an online education program for physicians. "If you have some time available, you can see what's available right now or next week or in a couple of weeks. You can take advantage of breaks in your schedule. University courses that are face-to face, you might have to start in September ... That (scheduling flexibility) alone is a great additional component to online learning in my book."

E-learning overall, including all types of training offered online, is expected to be a $14.5 billion market by 2004, with technology courses making up slightly more than half of all online content. At the same time, the rise in the numbers of courses offered through universities will continue.

This year, the share of U.S. higher education institutions offering e-learning courses stands at 54 percent. By 2004, International Data Corp. (IDC) forecasts, the share will be 87 percent, with total spending on all aspects of e-learning by colleges and universities to rise from $411 million this year to $744 million in 2004. This year, 882 two-year institutions offer courses online; IDC expects that figure to reach 1,467 by 2004. There are 1,197 four-year institutions offering e-learning this year, with an increase to 1,875 expected by 2004.

"Technology has the potential to 'democratize' education, removing ... obstacles and revolutionizing the delivery of educational content," according to a 1999 Merrill Lynch & Co. analysis of e-learning and the Apollo Group Inc., a for-profit company that operates the profitable University of Phoenix Online. "The Internet, video-conferencing and satellite systems can eliminate the scheduling and monetary barriers many face by delivering educational content to students homes or marketplaces, reducing its cost and increasing geographic accessibility to the growing population of students, creating schools without walls."

Such schools are becoming commonplace, with hundreds of universities and community colleges globally turning to e-learning as way to reach students in remote areas, boost admission figures and bring in more revenue, while grabbing worldwide recognition in the process.

Duke University's Fuqua School of Business through its Global Executive program offers a master degree in business administration online. The program requires some "residencies" where students spend time physically together and with instructors, but the bulk of the coursework is handled via the Internet. UCLA offers extensive Internet-only coursework. Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society has an online lecture and discussion series. Across Cambridge, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology multimillion-dollar plans are under way to make available all course materials on the Web within the next 10 years, a move that is expected to help developing countries provide technology courses modeled after the vaunted work at MIT. Universities in Canada, Australia and Asia likewise have turned to the Web.

New for-profit institutions with only online courses also are springing up.

Two of note are Jones International University Ltd., based in Englewood, Colorado, which opened in 1995 and became the first fully accredited online-only university, and the University of Phoenix, owned by the Apollo Group, also based in Phoenix. Apollo Group reported in March that the University of Phoenix Online brought in net income of $654,000 for the second fiscal quarter and that the company's entire Education group racked in $15.7 million, while the company as a whole had consolidated revenue of $163 million.

"Convenience education," is what Glenn Jones, the entrepreneur who started the online university that bears his name, has called the e-learning concept.

In a speech at the Harvard Conference on Internet & Society three years ago, Oracle Corp. Chief Larry Ellison, provoked an audience of mostly academics when he predicted that the old approach to higher education would be rendered obsolete because "virtually everybody around the globe will be connected to the Internet" by 2010. Universities will become less important with the "really great professors and really great teachers" standing to make loads of money from royalties on content they publish as they make courses available to millions of people globally.

There was more than a little stirring the seats of the packed theater when Ellison spoke. As tends to happen with Ellison's proclamations -- however wild -- at least some nugget of what he had to say is in the process of coming true.

Many who have embraced e-learning seem willing to let the provocative issues be worked out by others while they keep logging on, teaching and learning.

"It's very, very exciting to see a blank computer screen and then all of a sudden it comes to life," said Joanne Carle-Accornero, the e-learning instructor and consultant who taught the class Earll took at UCLA.

About 10 percent to 15 percent of the students she teaches now through the UCLA extension courses are located at military bases. She has taught students located in Turkey, Italy, Iceland, Mexico, Colombia, Hong Kong and Belize, as well as those based in various spots in the U.S. Her students have had jobs with high-tech companies, insurance companies and engineering companies, among others.

She posts assignments and lectures online and students read them as they have time. Each week, Carle-Accornero puts up discussion topics on a specific day and students have a set amount of time to respond. She uses online chats sparingly because "people just throw out their information" in an uncontrolled way and "in many cases it frustrates the students" because getting a word in edgewise can depend on how fast or well someone types. E-mail works better, she has found.

Earll found it was a challenge to jump into an online discussion. She went into the virtual classroom for a course using real-time chat and found herself "leaving without saying a word, repeating this behavior until I finally got up enough nerve to say, 'Hello. Is anyone here?' " Just as with a face-to-face course, it can take time for students to feel comfortable enough to contribute to online class discussions. However, proponents of e-learning say that just as in the wild world of public chat rooms, Internet classes can break down the natural resistance some people have to jumping in and talking. Eventually, as the class evolves, online camaraderie takes over.

"Amazingly, even though you have people coming online from all over the world," Carle-Accornero said, "they find they have things in common."

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