Picture that September morning in the future, when all of the new high school graduates pack up their clothes, laptops and stereos and head off to college … down the hall to the spare bedroom.
The notion of a "virtual university" is about as old as the Internet. Correspondence schools, of course, have been around for generations, mostly teaching trade skills. Then along came the University of Phoenix and the new wave of "professional" universities that enabled working folks to pick up MBAs and other trendy degrees at home in the evenings, leavened with regular weekend jam sessions.
The Internet, as it has with so many human endeavors, opened up the prospect of something entirely new: the chance to study at home or after hours at the office, while still partaking in the lectures, dialogues, and give-and-take of real college life.
The initial notion was to somehow combine television or videotapes of lectures with interactive Web sites and e-mail interactions with a professor. Broadband has changed all of that, with its ability to present multimedia lectures, downloadable podcasts, and real-time interaction between students and instructors.
If this sounds like a less-than-ideal learning experience to you, then it's probably been awhile since you sat in a 150-person Chem 101 lecture hall surrounded by unwashed, sniffling students, watching a television monitor of the instructor or teaching assistant -- the professor rarely shows up -- who in real life isn't more than a tiny figure in the distance.
The day of the virtual university appears to be upon us.
This week, The Wall Street Journal ran an article by reporter Daniel Golden, describing how a growing number of students were choosing to pick up new online degrees from prestigious universities. Golden told the story of a brother and sister, Pratiksha and Jignesh Patel, who decided to earn their bachelor's degrees over the Internet. Jignesh went for the new, Web-based degree program at the University of Phoenix, but his sister decided to go upscale and pick up her online degree at the University of Massachusetts.
Didn't know that UMass offered online degrees? Surprise, surprise: The online program has 9,200 students, which makes it bigger than many well-known liberal arts colleges around the country. Indeed, UMass online offers 63 different programs, including, as Golden writes, everything "from a master's degree in business to certificates in gerontology and casino management."
That's nothing compared to some of the really big online programs, such as the University of Maryland -- 51,000 students; and the Apollo Group, which runs the U of Phoenix, with 160,000 students. You can also pick up online degrees at Penn State and even Stanford. In 2003, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation found that 51 percent of public colleges in the United States offered online business programs; that percentage has only climbed from there.
Why have these colleges so quickly traded their ivy-covered walls for phosphorescent displays? Money, of course.
Though a few professors have sniffed at the prospect of an online college degree -- mostly those who don't think they'll get a piece of the royalties -- colleges and universities have learned to love the idea because it means scaling up the enrollment and tuition revenues without having to make the capital expenditure of adding new classrooms and dorms.