WASHINGTON -- Mike Marko has a Washington State University Cougars sweatshirt, sips coffee from a Cougars mug and roots for WSU teams, like any other loyal undergraduate.
After he gets his bachelor's degree in social sciences, about 15 credit hours from now, the Parma, Ohio, resident might even visit the campus 1,786 miles away.
College had been elusive for the 44-year-old local government worker. Odd shifts, the demands of children and the need to care for aging parents made Cleveland-area campuses as remote as Pullman, Wash., is now.
But the Internet, video conferencing, and simpler technology such as videotapes have broken time and distance barriers for people otherwise isolated from campuses by jobs, geography and missed opportunities in youth. By 1995, the Education Department reported, more than 700,000 students were taking off-campus courses electronically -- distance learning, it is called.
It was about that same time when Marko learned about Washington State's extended degree program from a friend who found out about it on the Internet.
As a result, Marko snatches 30-minute pieces of taped lectures in subjects such as human development and natural resources. He talks to professors and classmates by toll-free voice mail.. He writes term papers, takes exams at a local community college under the supervision of a designated proctor.
"I didn't think it was going to be as difficult as it is," Marko said by telephone. Still, "It's the greatest thing since the invention of the wheel."
What Marko learned about by word of mouth is becoming a growing presence in education, especially this year.
In 1995, a third of colleges, community colleges and universities offered remote courses. Another one-third plan to offer such courses by this fall.
Just this January, Colorado community colleges began offering a two-year business degree entirely by Internet. A Southern Regional Electronic Campus has opened, with 100 courses available from 50 participating institutions. The list of courses could expand to 1,500 this fall.
California opened a virtual university last year, offering 500 courses and degree programs from 77 colleges and universities. The University of Texas System decided last fall to create a 16th "TeleCampus" rather than build a real one.
Colleges offer such basics as accounting, geography, geometry and history, even Latin, and specialized courses such as poetry writing or doing business by Internet. Would-be funeral directors can learn the psychology of grieving.
But the biggest leap in distance learning is scheduled to happen this spring with the opening of the Western Governors University, which will have neither a campus nor lecturers of its own. Seventeen states and Guam are taking part in the venture, dreamed up by Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, and Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican.
Western Governors will "broker" courses from participating universities, community colleges and commercial suppliers. But students will enroll directly with WGU and get their degree from it rather than enrolling in a participating institution.
The corporate and legislative backers of WGU hope to do more while finding a way to lower the cost of education, make quick use of new technology, and absorb booming enrollments. They want to change the definition of college education. Seat time and credit hours will mean less than what students can show they're able to do by taking tests. The initiative will focus on the needs of students and employers.
"It's driving the change through market means, not through any kind of artificial change," Leavitt said.
But WGU will start small, offering just a basic, two-year associate's degree and another two-year degree in semiconductor manufacturing technology.
Nonetheless, the project is heightening anxiety among many faculty and their representatives, already worried about the growing number of professors forced into part-time work. Although many backers of distance education talk about the geographically isolated or working student, many institutions are gearing their distance offerings to the undergraduate.
"They have enormous undergraduate population projections," said Perry M. Robinson, an analyst for the American Federation of Teachers. "They say they cannot handle this by an expansion of faculties and institutions. There's more than one imperative here."
What's good for a 30-year-old seeking a specialized course may not be good for a 19-year-old, he says.
Those worries aside, the Clinton administration is recognizing the trend by pushing to make financial aid more available to distance learners and proposing grants for "learning anytime anywhere."
"Our financial aid system still treats distance learning and technologically delivered education as a stepchild," said David A. Longanecker, assistant education secretary for postsecondary education.
The Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics defines distance learning as education or training courses delivered to off-campus locations by audio, video or computer technologies.
One-third of higher education institutions surveyed in the fall of 1995 offered distance education courses, and 25 percent were expected to add distance courses within three years. Nearly 26,000 courses were offered. Courses were delivered by two-way interactive video at 57 percent of the institutions offering distance education and by one-way, prerecorded videos at 52 percent, the center says.
About one-quarter used two-way audio with one-way video. Only 14 percent used the Internet or other two-way online computer methods in fall 1995. But most institutions said they planned to increase their online computer offerings.
Some recent developments in distance education:
Colorado Community College Online (http://ccconline.org) -- A collaborative effort by the state's 13 community colleges. This month it began offering an associate degree in business entirely by Internet.
Southern Regional Electronic Campus (http://www.srec.sreb.org) -- Describes itself as a 15-state electronic marketplace for students, listing more than 100 courses by Internet, television or video tapes from more than 50 colleges and universities. Started in January, it hopes to expand offerings to 1,500 courses. Participating states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia. Developed by the Southern Regional Education Board.
California Virtual University (http://www.california.edu) -- An online catalog of distance courses offered by 77 campuses of the University of California, California State University, California Community Colleges and Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities. More than 500 courses, including some degree programs.
Western Governors University (http://www.westgov.org/smart/vu/vu.html) -- Scheduled to open in a limited fashion this spring , a degree- and certificate-granting, "virtual university" pooling resources of public learning institutions in 17 states and Guam. It will also offer commercially produced courses. The participating states each pitched in $100,000 to join. Corporations, including AT&T, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, are providing additional financial support and advice. Participating states are Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Will stress demonstrated competency rather than seat time or credit hours.