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COMPUTING

From...
PC World

Back to school, Web style

June 7, 1999
Web posted at: 2:13 p.m. EDT (1813 GMT)

by Carla Thornton education

(IDG) -- Carol Hopkins dreamed of earning her MBA, so like many people the Ledyard, Connecticut, salesperson struggled to squeeze night classes into an already packed schedule. In 1982, she had to drop out of graduate school. Three years ago she decided to try again. But by then, new obstacles intervened: She had a young child and lived an hour away from the nearest college. "I had more time to study, but I had to be home for my daughter," she recalls.

Unable to attend classes the traditional way, Hopkins enrolled in an online-studies program offered by the University of Phoenix. Last November, after two and a half years of study over the Internet, she received her MBA degree and joined Prudential Securities as a financial advisor in training. "Getting a degree online was a wonderful experience," she says. "It was a rigorous, high-quality program, with very, very sharp instructors."

Even if you study online from the comfort of your home, attaining a degree requires major commitments of time, intellectual energy, and money. Still, whether you want to take a class for your career or for fun, the new world of online learning is worth checking out.

Education boom

Thousands of online courses are available to anyone with a PC and Internet access, including classes from such respected institutions as the University of Wisconsin, Stanford University, Penn State, and the University of California at Berkeley. According to International Data Corporation, the number of people taking at least one college course over the Internet will triple by the year 2002 to about 2.2 million. That figure doesn't include students enrolled in online courses offered by computer training companies like Scholars.com, which offers Microsoft and Novell certification courses. Nor does it count people taking online hobbyist classes.

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To see what's available, consult a clearinghouse such as TeleCampus. This Web site lists over 12,000 classes offered by 700 colleges and other teaching organizations located throughout the world. Also worth a visit is Yahoo's online learning section, which provides more than 400 links.

With most online courses, students go to the school's Web site to pick up lessons, assignments, and tests; and they communicate with teachers via e-mail. Group discussions rely on chat rooms and message boards. Some courses even let online learners view streaming video of classroom lectures. Schedules are often accelerated. For example, the New School in New York offers 9-week online courses that would take 15 weeks to complete if taken on campus.

You may not care about frat parties or hanging out at the Student Union anymore, but will you miss the face-to-face interaction with classmates if you attend an online school? You might, but proponents say the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Because students communicate primarily through e-mail, they can participate at any time and from any place that gives them access to a computer.

Terri Hedegaard-Bishop, vice president of the University of Phoenix's distance learning program, adds that with online studies, "people aren't responding to physical features, gender, charisma, or whatever--they're responding to ideas, and that can be very freeing."

Not for slackers

Still, online learning is not for everyone. Though you might expect online classes to be cheaper to conduct than traditional ones, they can cost more, because teachers must put in longer hours. For example, University of Phoenix online graduate courses, most of which cost $1410 each, are 3 to 15 percent more expensive than their campus counterparts.

And Internet courses can be just as demanding as traditional classes, if not more so. That means online students, working in relative isolation, must be especially motivated to hit the books. "Don't think that just because you can study on your laptop that you can travel and earn a degree in your spare time," warns Hopkins. "To finish my 18 back-to-back six-week courses, I had to study several hours a day, including weekends."

Rigorous online classes offered by high-profile schools promise to bring new respectability to correspondence learning. "In general," says Hedegaard-Bishop, "today's employers are accepting of [online study], both because they know the constraints employees face when attempting to go back to school and because companies are usually quick to embrace technology for their own training needs."

But that doesn't mean diploma mills aren't as commonplace on the Web as they are in the analog world. These shady organizations, often graced with names that deceptively mimic those of real universities, may require little academic work or volunteer to sell you a degree outright. Warning signs include absence of a physical address or phone number on the Web site. Don't sign up for a college-level program unless it's approved by a regional accreditation agency. However, if you're taking a course not intended for completing a degree--say, a class on data warehousing from Scholars.com, or one on insects from The School of Flyfishing--a nonaccredited Web school could serve you fine.

Although Carol Hopkins says she was "tethered to the computer" during her online studies, it wasn't all work. "One of my classmates invited several of us for a weekend on Nantucket so we could finally meet and celebrate the completion of our degrees." Which proves that even when you opt for a virtual campus, the friendships you form can be very real.


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