Originally created 05/17/99

Online college to see increase in availability



ATLANTA -- After squeezing in a college course here and there for more than seven years, Maria Moton now pursues her accounting degree around the clock.

She flips on a computer after dinner to retrieve homework assignments. She answers professors' e-mails at 3 a.m. when she can't sleep. She joins in online discussions with classmates while vacationing at the beach.

Through Internet courses offered by Clayton College and State University, the 34-year-old Morrow woman now fits college into her hectic schedule as a full-time secretary and mother of three young boys.

"I've been at this for so many years and I've had to skip years because I just couldn't get to a campus and sit through a lecture for an hour," Ms. Moton said. "Now, since it's online, there's really no reason not to go ahead and finish it. It's available anytime I feel like doing it."

Georgia's University System hopes thousands more students like Ms. Moton will want to take college courses online when the state expands its degree offerings over the Internet beginning in April 2000.

But as the idea of an Internet University spreads like wildfire across the nation, some have raised concerns about a high dropout rate for Internet courses, about accessibility for poor students who can ill afford computers, and about the role of professors in virtual classrooms.

Nationwide, 26,000 courses online teach roughly 750,000 students. They include the online law school and courses at Stanford University, the University of California at Los Angeles and Duke.

In the South, the Southern Regional Education Board has created an "electronic campus" where students can enroll in some 1,500 online courses offered by 180 public colleges in 16 states, including Georgia. More than 15,000 students have used the electronic campus to enroll in Internet courses.

Also, a wholly online school has won accreditation for the first time: Students at Jones International University, operated from Denver, now have such privileges as transferring credits and earning employer tuition reimbursements.

But the College Board warned in a report last month that Internet courses could hinder the progress of poor and minority students who arrive at college with less exposure to computers than white or more-affluent pupils.

Georgia is trying to address that potential problem with a plan to let students use computers at public libraries and public schools, said Rick Skinner, the former president of Clayton College who will head the online venture for the University System.

"The reality is that access to this digital world is still a financial matter," Mr. Skinner said.

A report last month by the Institute for Higher Education Policy said colleges still lack enough knowledge about Internet-based education to justify its rapid growth.

For example, studies haven't explained a higher dropout rate for Internet-based learners -- 32 percent compared with 4 percent for classroom students in one study -- or looked at whether students do better from Internet instruction alone or from a mix of Internet and classroom learning.

Mr. Skinner said he saw the same high dropout trend when Clayton College first began offering online courses. Eighteen-year-olds enrolled in online courses thinking they would be easier, then dropped out once they realized the Internet courses required greater dedication and discipline.

"That's why we're going to focus on the nontraditional, older student," Mr. Skinner said of the statewide venture. "There is a difference between an 18-year-old and a 35-year-old who's coming back to school. We know that they have more maturity and more discipline."

Also, teacher unions in some states have raised concerns about the lack of face-to-face interaction between students and professors. They also worry that the faculty's role will dwindle as more students choose to earn a degree at a computer rather than in a classroom.

So far, Georgia's faculty has embraced the online concept, Mr. Skinner said.

"Technology is not going to reduce their role," Mr. Skinner said. "We desperately need faculty more than ever because we need the content for the courses."