It's usually late at night or Saturdays when Bambie Argyle shows up for graduate school at the University of Nebraska. Done with household and other duties, it's her turn at the family computer in a rugged Wyoming town called Mountain View. The Lincoln campus is 770 miles away.
Argyle settles in the playroom and logs on to read lecture texts, get assignments, join class discussion by e-mail and take quizzes. She also does research, like a required virtual museum tour.
"What a great opportunity for me to live so far from a university, have a busy life as a wife and mom and also as a high school teacher," said Argyle of earning a master's in Family and Consumer Science - formerly home ec. It costs about $650 per course for tuition and books. "But I don't have to go anywhere," she said. "I don't have to worry about travel time. I don't have to worry about leaving the family."
The 43-year-old teacher is among countless students attending college online. As high school seniors head off to college, as working people and at-home parents contemplate picking up a postponed degree or earning another, great numbers are signing up for class in cyberspace.
While many students in online classes are past the typical college age of 18-24, experts say, such courses are also taking root in the conventional undergraduate experience.
When Eric Hoffman was deciding where to apply to college, the San Diego high school senior leaned toward schools with many online courses. "It's definitely an advantage," said the 17-year-old, who's seeking admission at about 10 schools.
Hoffman wants to be a doctor. He figures the convenience of one or two online courses each semester will help pack in the pre-med learning he needs. Since college is a lot of "taking notes and writing essays," he said, online "you could kind of do it whenever you want to in your dorm room."
Format, presentation and technology of online courses vary widely: lectures in Microsoft PowerPoint slides, in text on class Web sites, in streaming video, in real time or on the student's time, even old-fashioned videotapes sent by mail.
Class discussion takes place by e-mail, in special class chat rooms, or by telephone. While students may never meet the professor or fellow students in the flesh, some online courses include opportunities for such encounters.
Tests, essays and term papers still play a part. For a final exam now, however, the professor may ask the student to find a local teacher or librarian to serve as proctor.
How many are enrolled? The most recent federal survey of distance education in all its variation estimated a 1.4 million enrollment in such college-level courses for credit. But that was in the 1997-98 academic year, and figures in the fast-growing field quickly grow outdated. Participation is in the millions, experts say.
Around 75 percent of the nation's established two- and four-year colleges and universities have some online presence - so-called brick to click, according to Robert Tucker of InterEd in Eagle, Idaho, which helps institutions enter the online market.
No need for a student to stick to one school, however. Offerings from many schools make up the catalogue of new entities like Kentucky Virtual University, which provides links to online courses statewide and grants degrees, and Western Governors University, which builds degrees based on an individual's career expertise and offers links to online courses nationwide. In March, the nation's 28 Jesuit colleges and universities plan to present all their online offerings through JesuitNET.
Fairleigh Dickinson University is creating an online course for next fall's freshmen, the first class required to take at least one online course every semester. The private New Jersey school wants its graduates comfortable researching, exploring and relating in cyberspace.
Skeptics have wondered, however, if the Web can truly equal the lectern and chalkboard.
Such questions followed the launch of Concord University School of Law, which began offering law degrees entirely online in 1998. The Los Angeles-based school is owned by educational services firm Kaplan Inc., a division of The Washington Post Co.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has expressed concern about the concept this way: "I am uneasy about classes in which students learn entirely from home, in front of a computer screen, with no face-to-face reaction with other students and instructors."
Concord Dean Jack Goetz responds to doubters: "As an online law school, we have built in a tremendous number of feedback mechanisms that provide students with information on how they're doing." Professors tailor discussions, he said, and reach out to students who need help.
Concord lacks accreditation by the American Bar Association, which requires students to be physically present in schools. But Concord graduates may take the California bar exam and practice in some federal courts. And 600 students are enrolled in its programs.
One is Floyd Chapman. His first try at a traditional law school ran aground, he said, over travel conflicts for his job at a financial services firm. Now the 42-year-old marketing director attends law school in his den in Culver City, Calif.
He finds Concord courses stimulating, with loads of faculty interaction. And it's far from easy. "I get the same trepidations and anxieties as with any professional study." His employer believes in what Chapman's doing, reimbursing him for tuition and books. And, Chapman said, upper management is already tapping him to analyze proposals and contracts.
When Lee Benbenek needed to fulfill a fine-arts requirement last year at two-year Triton College in River Grove, Ill., he was intrigued by a theater course offered in a regular classroom as well as online.
Benbenek was soon raving to friends: "I'm taking a class where I don't even have to show up!"
The same lecture delivered in the classroom was posted in text form on the class Web site for online students. All students had to keep up with the required reading, but in place of classroom discussion online students responded to the readings by e-mail for all the class to read.
Now 21, Benbenek transferred his Triton credits to Eastern Illinois University, where he's majoring in speech communication. That online theater course taught him the economy of words, and to buckle down, he said. "You didn't just learn the material. You learned how and when to study the material. It was total discipline."
Benbenek likes the social contact of college too much to go completely online. "The whole point of going to college is learning the book material, and disciplining yourself and learning about people from all over the world," he said.
Sometimes, online is the only option.
Colorado State University, for instance, requires many science majors to take histology - the microscopic study of organic tissue. It's offered solely online. For three years, associate professor Sherry McConnell offered her histology students an online alternative. Though it was never listed in the catalogue, word spread far from the Fort Collins campus, to students who signed on in Arizona and New York.
McConnell loves the give-and-take of the classroom and felt online would be a poor substitute - at first. But over time she found the new way of teaching just as enjoyable.
Her online course also proved more accommodating to students holding full-time jobs or looking after families. Best of all, she said, "The results were so astounding, it was clear to me students were doing better with the online class."
Students praise the flexibility of this form of learning. But they caution it demands self-discipline and motivation. Online courses can entail more reading and attention than sitting in class soaking up a lecture. They require adjustment to various professors' different software and presentations, and an ability to create a quadrangle of the mind.
And it can be lonely.
"I will probably never see these people, ever," said Argyle, the Wyoming graduate student. "After you've taken a few classes, I know how old their kids are, or that they're divorced." Still, there's no substitute for setting eyes on someone, sharing the same air.
Along with staying motivated, Argyle said, "That's probably been the hardest for me, not having a personal bond with these students, or the teacher ... the lack of having them know who I am."
But there was no other way for Argyle in her quest for more education, short of leaving home. The nearest city and educational opportunity is in Salt Lake City, some two hours away.
|On the Net:|
Directories to distance learning programs:
Kentucky Virtual University: http://www.kcvu.org
Western Governors University: http://www.wgu.edu/wgu
University of Nebraska, Family and Consumer Sciences: http://chrfs.unl.edu/FCS.htm