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Division Over Internet Learning

April 6, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Hundreds of universities are launching courses or degree programs online, but a pair of reports being released Wednesday question whether a seat in front of a computer is as good as a seat in a college classroom.

The reports’ complaints range from whether the programs’ effectiveness is evaluated properly, whether they cost too much, even whether they are inherently unfair to certain students.

The College Board, in its report, warns 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 students.

``Colleges have to keep this in perspective,″ Larry F. Gladieux, a senior researcher at the board, said Tuesday. ``There’s this rush to get online and go virtual. I’m not saying the world is going to stop, but colleges, policy-makers and (Internet) providers who are driving this market need to think about broad access.″

A report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, also coming out Wednesday, says colleges still lack enough knowledge about Internet-based learning to justify its rapid growth. For example, it says, studies haven’t explained a higher dropout rate for Internet-based learners _ 32 percent compared to 4 percent in a study reviewed by the researchers _ or looked at whether students do better from Internet instruction alone or from a mix of Internet and classroom-based learning.

``Many of the studies suggest the grades of distance learners are higher or comparable,″ said Jamie Merisotas, president of the Institute for Higher Learning. ``We don’t know whether the poorer performers are dropping out at a higher rate.″

Internet classes are a growing option for students who find on-campus meetings inconvenient because of distance, work schedules or family duties. There are 26,000 courses online, and roughly 750,000 students take them. They include an online law school, a pool of Western colleges and degrees and courses at Stanford University, the University of California at Los Angeles and Duke.

Despite financial troubles at California’s Virtual University, ventures such as Washington state’s Online College are forging ahead.

The most visible advance, supporters say, is the first-time accreditation of an online school: Students at Jones International University, an online university operated out of Denver, now share with traditional school students such privileges as transferring credits and earning employer tuition reimbursements.

``I wondered if I was going to get a quality education,″ said Joan Crittenden, a Navy safety official who received her master’s degree in business communications from Jones in December. ``I actually think I did get a better education. More of the resources were at my fingertips.″

Distance learning started with classes taken by mail or by watching teachers’ lectures on videos or cable television. The Internet’s profit potential is driving the renaissance of an educational outlet designed to serve older, nontraditional students.

Unlike its correspondence school or video-lecture predessors, Internet-based distance learning has a place on campus, too.

Deborah Everhart, a medieval studies professor at Georgetown University, holds classes off- and online, and says professors who have mastered e-mail now use their Web pages to post course readings, homework assignments and bulletin boards where students can discuss lessons by leaving messages for the professor and other students. Many have no doubt that the technology has improved their students’ performances.

``There are students I might not ordinarily hear from in class,″ Everhart said. ``But in a chat room, they feel freer to state their opinions and ask their questions.″

Matthew Pittinsky is a co-founder of Blackboard Inc., which creates and maintains Internet sites for college courses. ``There’s no question, there is a market,″ Pittinsky said. ``Professors all over the country talk about the educational value of offering their students courses on the Web.

Colleges’ reliance on technology marketed by Blackboard, Real Education of Denver and Convene in San Francisco has led to criticism that these ventures are more about higher profits than higher learning.

College officials worried over enrollment increases and budget cuts could be easily seduced by pitches that virtual learning cuts the costs of ``bricks and mortar″ learning, said Gladieux of the College Board.

But they need to ensure equal access, he said, noting that a technological divide still exists. For example, computers are in 75 percent of households with incomes over $75,000, but just 20 percent of households making less than $15,000 have computers or daily access. White families are twice as likely to have computers at home as black or Hispanic families.

And freshmen at private or public historically black colleges are half as likely to have campus e-mail than freshmen at other private or public universities.

But Andrew Rosen of Kaplan said online courses can help students with less money. A law degree from Kaplan’s Concord Law School costs up to $21,000, including the cost of a computer, rather than $80,000 for a more traditional law school, Rosen said.

``Online education has the potential to close a lot of the gaps that exist right now,″ Rosen said.