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Do virtual classrooms make the grade?
(CNN) -- Today more than 14 million people are logging on to their computers and double-clicking into virtual classrooms. With students taking undergraduate classes as well as acquiring graduate degrees in fields as diverse as nursing, business, engineering and technology, experts predict e-learning will become a $2 billion industry within four years.
"Once we have more or less universal access to broadband, to real high-speed technologies, you'll have people sitting home taking Harvard courses, taking Wharton Business School courses," said Randall Rothenberg, editor of strategy+business, which has been tracking the growth of e-learning.
"It's not just in the U.S. We're also opening the opportunity to transmit the best education system in the world, around the world," he said.
'It's just second rate'
But not everyone believes e-learning is a good thing.
"It's not that bad, but that's one of the reasons why it worries me," said Dr. Carole Fungaroli, literature professor at Georgetown University. "It's not that good either. It's just second rate."
Fungaroli is author of "Traditional Degrees," in which she says age and family responsibility shouldn't preclude anyone from seeking a traditional degree. She points out that single mothers, who have the biggest challenge, can often have their tuition completely waived at expensive traditional schools and can take their kids on campus.
"For me, teaching isn't just disseminating information. A lot of what I do involves assessing how much you get it or my student gets it, questioning them. We do a lot of dialogue," Fungaroli said.
The e-student profile
E-student profiles often differ from those of students who choose traditional classrooms. More than half of online learners are over 30 years old, hold down a full-time job and already have a degree.
A full-time security officer caring for a parent with recurring cancer, Virginia Fedor is pursuing a degree online in criminal justice. At her home in Fairfax City, Virginia, Fedor takes a sociology course taught from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia -- 200 miles away.
"If I miss a class, I'm not missing any material. I can log in whenever I want, I can replay the course whenever I want, and the instructor is always available online by e-mail or over the phone," she said.
Fedor doesn't miss sitting in a real classroom, where she thinks it's easy to miss information if teachers go too fast. And her professor, Donald Smith, doesn't mind doing double-duty in the classroom and on the Net.
"We're reaching students who otherwise wouldn't have access to college, so I haven't seen any difference in their performance over the years," Smith said.
Online law school vs. Harvard
Not all online schools are connected to brick-and-mortar universities. Many exist solely in cyberspace, like Concord University, the first online law school, created in 1998. A four-year school, Concord costs students $5,160 a year. That's about one-fifth as much as traditional private law schools.
"We don't have buildings; we don't have cafeterias; we don't have football teams and marching bands," said provost Andrew Rosen. "What we spend our money on is the actual education that students are getting and in particular, we spend our money on making sure that students have access to faculty."
The online law school has already stirred up controversy. It began when Harvard Law professor Arthur Miller, a paid consultant, taped a series of video lectures for Concord Law students. When Harvard discovered that students outside Cambridge, Massachusetts, could access these lectures, the administration asked Miller to give up the course.
"They're worried about the Harvard trademark, and they seem to be saying I'm diluting it by allowing some of my materials to be used at Concord Law School, Concord University," Miller said. "Curiously, they never said that when I was identified for 20-odd years on Good Morning America as Harvard Law School."
Harvard policy permits faculty to teach, consult or research, as long as it doesn't consume more than 20 percent of their time. Now the university has proposed a new guideline that restricts professors from dealing with any educational institution at any time.
While Harvard debates this issue, education experts say distance learning is here to stay.
"The big problem here is that people see this purely in terms of either-or," Rothenberg said. "That's not what it's about. This is about opening up a whole new set of tools and a whole new set of opportunities in the range between the classroom and the distance learning experience."
Analysis: Setting the payment standards of online-education
Old Dominion University
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