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US Online Universities Growing in Popularity - 2003-02-26

Universities are extending higher education via the Internet in growing numbers. Students receive lectures and submit assignments online without leaving their home or office.

Some non-traditional schools were the first to see the Internet's potential. The University of Phoenix, a profit-making upstart in higher education, ventured online early. Based in Arizona, the school has satellite campuses in office complexes throughout the United States. Brian Mueller heads the online program.

"We started this, believe it or not, back in 1989," he said. "We saw the Internet starting to grow. We believed it was going to become a major communications vehicle in the world, and we believed we could offer our programs using that vehicle.

"And very honestly, it took us three or four years to figure out exactly what we were doing, how we wanted to do it," Mr. Mueller continued. "We wanted to make sure we were as effective as possible."

The University of Phoenix offers degrees in professional fields such as business, information technology, education and nursing.

The University of Southern California, a traditional institution, was also a pioneer in using technology to reach students away from campus.

Kelly Goulis, executive director of the Distance Education Network for the university's school of engineering, says the school first sent lectures by microwave link.

"We got into it almost 30 years ago when some of the local aerospace companies requested that we deliver some of our graduate programs to their engineers," she said. "But they didn't want the engineers to come to campus."

Later, the school used satellite technology to link its professors to engineers at companies further afield, such as Boeing, the giant aircraft manufacturer. Ms. Goulis says the Internet opened new possibilities for long-distance education.

"Just in the last couple of years, we've made a big push via the web because of the quality of the technology and the way we can deliver the online content and the ability to do even more than we can do from traditional broadcasts," Ms. Goulis said.

Students can now earn a master's degree in engineering without setting foot on the USC campus.

They can also earn a master's degree in gerontology, the study of aging and the needs of the elderly.

Mich Magness is the aging specialist for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. He works in Oklahoma City and lives in a farming community east of the city. A few years ago, he thought of returning to school for graduate study.

"However, I was in my late 30s to early 40s, a mid-career professional. And in addition to working fulltime in aging, I serve on the school board, I have three teenaged sons, one's in college now, I have a farm, a wife, a house, and there just wasn't enough hours in the day for me to find time to drive to a nearby university," he explained.

Mr. Magness enrolled in the online program and says the experience was rewarding. Last year, he became a member of the first online class to graduate from USC's school of gerontology.

Many university administrators and professors were initially skeptical of web-based education, and some still are. Ms. Goulis says the Internet works best for graduate students who are mature and focused on learning, and do not need close supervision.

Brian Mueller of the University of Phoenix says his online program has tapped a serious pool of students, typically working professionals in their mid-30s. Classes are restricted to 13 students, who take part in online discussions in a special "chat room." Faculty lectures are sent in text form along with discussion questions.

"There's a tremendous amount of communication," he said. "In fact, we tell people that typically our online students get more contact with their fellow students, get to know them better, and they get more one-on-one time with their faculty than they would ever get in a typical brick and mortar classroom setting."

The University of Phoenix has online students in more than 50 countries. The USC's online engineering program is aimed at U.S. students, but Kelly Goulis says some have finished their program while living in other countries.

"We've had students who started in the U.S. and have moved," she said. "Their company has asked them to go to Canada or Germany. We had one student who was actually called to active military duty in the Middle East. He was working for the military, and because they have a high-speed Internet connection, he was able to continue the degree and subsequently complete it."

Hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities now offer courses online, including prestigious schools like Harvard and Stanford. The cost of online education is comparable to that of studying on campus.

University officials say initial resistance is giving way to the realization that the Internet can extend a school's reach. It is also serving the needs of an untapped group of students, from those in remote areas to those who travel for business and single parents unable to attend traditional classes.