In a matter of weeks, the nation's college campuses will be swarming with students an estimated total of about 16 million. The students will search for dormitory or off-campus housing, register for classes, make new friends and many will gradually develop a sense of community in an environment of learning. But some - actually, a growing number - will pursue their academic studies altogether differently in the pursuit of an on-line education.
"Basically, it's all point and click. You click on the course for which you register in a given term and that takes you to the entrance to what we think of as a 'virtual' classroom," said Mark Parker. Mr. Parker is a professor of writing at University of Maryland University College, or UMUC, which is headquartered in College Park, Maryland.
Professor Parker does not teach in the traditional way. Instead, he teaches his course on-line. Alone in his office, in front of his computer, Mr. Parker types messages to his students his class lectures, comments, and discussion topics, which are known in the on-line vernacular as "postings."
Mr. Parker said, "What you would see if you were to go into an [online] classroom that's been in progress for some time, what you would see, is threaded discussion. A faculty member would typically post a discussion question. Underneath that, you would see listed the comments from the students not only to the instructor's original posting, but also to the postings of other students who have commented on the particular topic."
UMUC offers some traditional, so-called "face-to-face" courses. But it is more widely known as the nation's leading online educator, with 29 full-degree, online programs generally in business and technical fields.
UMUC has an international student body of more than 72,000 which officials expect will triple in less than a decade.
Professor Parker said, "When you consider the fact that, for the first time, we can reach a student anywhere in the world who has access to a PC [personal computer] and a modem - and we can reach students here in Maryland, throughout the country and throughout the world - the growth in enrollments doesn't seem all that surprising."
National surveys show that the growth in online education isn't restricted to UMUC. One study found that about 70 percent of the nation's 4,000 two and four-year colleges and universities offered online courses last year - compared with 48 percent in 1998. In one notable case, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently announced plans to put its entire curriculum and course lectures online for free.
Experts point out that the online boom is not occuring at the expense of traditional college student enrollments. Record numbers of 18 to 21 year olds continue to attend classes on campuses nationwide. Rather, the growing demand for online services is coming from America's working-age population.
Claudine SchWeber is an administrator and faculty member at UMUC. She said, "The data indicates that the population, as we all know, is aging. We have information from the Department of Education that indicates that 60 percent of students are in the 25 or more age group. You're talking about another transformation [in addition to on line learning] in higher education which is the notion of lifelong learning. It's no longer possible to keep only the things you learned when you were in college and say that's enough for your whole life. Some people have to come back and get additional learning in their particular field. Others need to change their careers. Others find they have a new interest. You're talking about the majority, moving higher now, saying, 'We need to continue to get an education.'"
One of the students at UMUC is Judy Rowe. Ms. Rowe, a flight attendant with American Airlines, is pursuing a masters degree in psychology literally between flights. "Since I'm a flight attendant," she said, "I can be on a layover in Japan doing my homework, turning in an assignment."
Loyce Palen is another online student. A homemaker and career woman living in the Washington, D.C., area, Ms. Palen takes information technology courses at UMUC. "When I get home in the evening, it's much nicer to be able to come home, decompress a little bit, have dinner and then get on line to start my school work - as opposed to running to a classroom right after leaving the office."
While many students like the convenience of on-line education, UMUC professor Mark Parker says there's an additional reason for its appeal. "In a face-to-face classroom," he said, "let's say with 20 students facing one teacher standing up in the front of the room, I think most teachers would probably agree the classroom discussion is typically dominated by four or five students who have no trouble speaking their minds. The rest of the students are sort of in the middle. They'll comment every once in awhile. Then there's a cadre of students just far too shy or far too intimidated to sound off. In an on-line classroom, I've noticed that does not happen. Even the ones that, in their personal lives, may be shy and not very talkative are much more assertive in the online classroom."
But online learning has its detractors. Critics point out that not all online institutions are succeeding. Most recently, Temple University had to shut down its online service due to low enrollment, and Western Governors University, which is a consortium of 17 virtual colleges, has so far attracted only a few hundred students.
The American Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 100,000 college professors, also has a warning for online educators - do not teach subjects that require a human touch, such as nursing, or courses like chemistry which require supervised activity in a laboratory or other setting.
Proponents of online education say there will always be room for traditional and online methods of teaching, and that online learning is here to stay.