A SHEEPSKIN FROM ON-LINE U.
It was something Richard Heppner had never considered. Although he was an adjunct instructor in the media department for Dutchess Community College, he still needed a master's degree in education before he could move on to a full-time teaching position. But with a busy work schedule and a family with one three-year-old daughter and another child on the way, Heppner couldn't swing the time to drive the 90 miles each week to complete his education at The New School for Social Research in New York. It almost seemed hopeless for Heppner until a friend suggested an unorthodox approach: attend classes
Instead of listening to a lecture, Heppner was reading and responding to posted electronic messages from the professor and fellow students. "It was like talking on paper," says Heppner, who now teaches full time at Orange County Community College. And although it took Heppner three years instead of two to get his degree by doing it electronically, he is a firm believer in on-line education. In fact, Heppner is even conducting a virtual class on popular culture and the media for Connected Education, the White Plains (N.Y.) service that developed the on-line courses used by The New School.
While there seems to be no official count on the number of institutions that are offering on-line degree courses, interest in creating such programs for a wide variety of undergraduate and advanced disciplines is exploding. And the rapid developments in telecommunications and computers--the basis of the burgeoning Information Superhighway--are making it easier for schools and students to connect over the vast sphere of cyberspace.
That's a good thing, since more and more people are finding it tougher to attend traditional classes because of time constraints such as hectic office hours. "On-line education can be a lifeline to those who have obstacles, such as geographical distances or physical disabilities," says Paul Levinson, director of the Online Program for The New School (212 239-5630).
Since most on-line courses follow the Socratic teaching method, the electronic correspondence among instructor and students is often rich with thoughtful discussions. "Instead of having students interact with machines and software, it's student-to-student and teacher-to-student learning," says Steve Eskow, president of the Electronic University Network (eun), a service that puts universities and other schools on line via the America Online network.
While learning on line currently is limited to reading and writing text messages, cheaper and faster networks could make classrooms more closely resemble their physical counterparts. Institutions such as eun (800 225-3276) and the University of Phoenix Online Program (800 742-4742) use computer networks that have bulletin boards for posting messages, libraries to research books and papers, and even conference rooms where students and teachers can gather and hold discussions in "real time."
PRICEY PLUG-IN. If you're interested in enrolling, you need simply to call the participating institution. You will then be referred to a guidance counselor, who will determine your eligibility for the program you want. As with any other college or university, you'll have to submit an application, including past academic credentials. Once you're accepted, the school will work out the technical side of connecting your pc with its network. In some cases, you'll be provided with software. eun, for example, sends its students the programs needed to log onto America Online.
While advancing technologies help make it more convenient to learn, there are still problems with on-line education. Some programs can be quite expensive. While the tuition of around $400 per course credit is roughly on par with that of conventional universities, on-line students should be aware of the hidden costs. These include network-connection charges, telephone time, plus equipment if you don't already own a computer and a modem.
Also keep in mind that while degrees of study can range from an associate's degree in liberal arts to a doctorate in philosophy, not every field can be covered on line. And finally, while virtual classes are easier to fit around a busy schedule, most courses still require that students make a solid time commitment. Miss enough on-line sessions, and you could find yourself in the virtual detention room. Courses Without Classrooms
SCHOOL COURSES/DEGREES OFFERED
The Electronic A group of 25 schools offering a variety of
University Network undergraduate and advanced degrees on
America Online; costs vary with course
The New School Gives courses accepted by most degree
New York City programs; $450 per credit
The University of Offers instruction for undergraduate and
Phoenix, San Francisco graduate degrees; $325 to $445 per credit