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Online Education Is Booming

Betty Marton of New Paltz, N.Y., is a freelance writer, the mother of two young kids, with another on the way. She's busy.

Recently, she got an idea for a book she wants to write. As it's a departure from her usual business writing, she decided to sign up for a writing workshop.

"But there wasn't the kind of class I wanted to take within reach and within my schedule," Marton said.

So she signed up to take an online course offered by Schenectady County Community College.

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The teacher gives mini-lectures and assignments to Marton and other students over the Internet, designed to help them write a book proposal, including outline and sample chapter. The students log on to a special site and submit their work to the teacher and to each other, critiquing each other's work.

Marton says the online class is helpful, but "it takes some getting used to. I don't have the fastest Internet connection, so it makes moving from one option within the course module to another a little slower."

She also hasn't "got a feel for other people in the class with whom we're expected to interact online. It's difficult to get a sense of them. Everybody has given a short bio for the others in the class to read, but it's not like getting to know someone face to face."

Marton says feedback with the teacher has been good. "If I post a question or an assignment, I get feedback pretty quickly. The jury is still out, but I think it will serve the purpose."

Steven Sperry of Seattle calls people such as Marton "self-directed learners." Sperry is founder and CEO of Acadio, a new company that helps people find continuing education courses on the Internet. He says there's a target audience of 78 million people who potentially could take online classes.

"It used to be that you'd go to school for four years, and then go to work for a company, and the company would tell you when you could take a course and what course it would be," says Sperry. "Today, people have to be learning continuously, and because of the mobility of the work force, people are essentially taking ver that decision about their continuing education for themselves."

Sperry is prepared to wait five years for the burgeoning industry to hit its stride. And he cites strong statistics that suggest his patience may pay off. "In the year 2000, $1.1 billion will be spent on online learning," Sperry says. "And that's still only 1 percent of the whole online market.".

"The Internet can remove the barriers that separate people from learning opportunities," says Sperry. "Those barriers are distance, time and cost. For somebody who has children at home or doesn't have transportation, going to a community college that's 20 miles away isn't an option for them."

At this point, he recognizes that "online learning is not effective over a 28.8 modem. Until broadband is widely available, we're not going to see a widespread adoption of online learning."

But he thinks that broadband will be available within five years.

New York University is also expecting online education to explode. In February, NYUonline launched six courses online, for a management certification program.

"It's a soft-launch phase with 75 students," says Gordon Macomber, CEO of NYUonline. He points out that among their students are people currently living in the Philippines, London and Brazil.

"We have plans by the end of the year to have 30 courses on the market. We're working with all the schools at NYU to develop their online curriculum for the future."

Macomber anticipates that some classes, such as the certificate program in e-commerce, "might easily have thousands of students taking the class at one time. The demand is that high."

He says that the university "wants to move very quickly into the Web-based education market."

"Students do not have to forgo this valuable education, because it's immediately available to them. It opens up a very big market," says Macomber.

In addition to classes, NYUonline will offer other services to students.

"If you're taking an online course, you'll be able to receive career counseling and education counseling on line," explains Macomber. "You'll also be able to do a lot of research online, pertinent to your course, because we will offer an online library, much the same as the university."

Macomber says that corporations have a tremendous need to educate their workers.

"The real sweet spot has to do with Web-based training and education because companies don't need to invest in infrastructure or technology. All they have to do is offer to their employees courses online."

"Right now there are 400,000 open jobs in the information technology arena. They can't fill them," says Macomber. "This is why we're offering a master's degree in management and systems. And in the next batch, we're offering a m
aster's in computer science, all to feed this huge demand."

He points out that the lack of skilled worers is the most significant barrier to growth.

The New York State Department of Education is also taking advantage of the Internet to help bring qualified nurses into their hospitals as soon as possible.

"A nurse entering New York state can do everything from apply, take the exam and receive their certificate in two weeks," said Tom Dunn, spokesperson for the NY State Education Department.

Recently, Barbara Treacy of the Education Development Center in Newton, Mass., helped train 90 teachers in Louisiana to make the best use of the internet in their classrooms. Treacy and the teachers never actually met face to face.

What Treacy finds most exciting is "bringing people access to resources that they couldn't get to without the online setting."

She explained that the EDC taught the teachers "how to explore the pyramids as a group, use the resources of the Smithsonian Institution, track earthquakes and gain access to museum collections around the world. You can even look through telescopes in Hawaii. You can actually look through it," Treacy says.

Perhaps the most gratifying part of Treacy's work is helping teachers "meet and collaborate with people who are like-minded - a global collaboration," she says. She feels that she's helping build communities, "which is especially important to teachers who feel isolated in their classrooms."

As Sperry points out, "Education is the number one thing that separate, that prevents people from achieving the quality of life that they desire. We believe that the Internet can be the great equalizer, by making education available to everybody."



Written by Producer Justine Blau