The growth of personal computing, advances in technology and increasing public access to the Internet has spurred widespread availability of online education. Today, courses and even full college degrees are only a mouse- click away.

Over the past eight years, higher education has experienced exponential growth of distance learning options. According to a recent study issued by the Sloan Consortium entitled: "Entering the Mainstream: The Quality and Extent of Online Education in the United States, 2003 and 2004", online enrollments will continue their rapid increase.

More and more colleges consider distance learning strategically crucial. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that online enrollments nearly doubled from 1997 to 2001--over half of them at community colleges. In the fall of 2002, over 1.6 million learners participated in online studies, to be exceeded this year by another million.

The recognized world leaders in offering online options are:
The Open University in the UK that has the largest online program anywhere. About 160,000 Open University students and their tutors are online, using the university's email conferencing system to contact each other and having online discussions via their PCs.

The University of Phoenix, established in 1989, is the largest private institution of higher education in the United States and was among the first accredited universities to provide college degree programs via the Internet. Today, over 118,909 students pursue Bachelor's, Master's or Doctoral degrees in an entirely online format. Available degree programs are in Business, Management, Technology, Education and Nursing.

Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada, serves approximately 30,000 students per year in their online program, Open University. Since opening, 200,000 students have participated in undergraduate and graduate programs delivered online, covering a wide distribution of majors.

Attending online courses is quite different from the normal campus experience. In a virtual world, access to courses is typically 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. Classmates and instructors communicate via chat, online discussions or email. Whether a learner will maneuver well in an online environment largely depends on personal inclination and learning style. Some people love it, others miss face-to-face interaction; generally, more independent students who are able to structure their own time will have an easier time than those who favor a classroom setting. Many colleges utilize
online assessments to assist students in determining whether an online course will suit their learning needs.

However, if you believe that an online education will save you tuition money, you are mistaken. Most colleges charge the same or even more for online courses. It costs more to develop an online course than a classroom- delivered course, they argue, and faculties require special training in how to teach effectively online. Not to speak of the cost of software, computers, instructional design, media and IT staff. Perhaps the best hope for lower fees--currently they average $35,000 per year at top-tier private schools--will be the creation of online-only colleges that could price their programs commensurate with delivery costs.

To locate the perfect online course for you, check these registries of credit, non-credit, personal enrichment and short courses: and

Some think that in a few years, we may not even need a computer to be an online student. In his book The Future of Learning: From eLearning to mLearning, Desmond Keegan, an internationally renowned professor and researcher of distance learning, suggests that hand-held mobile devices could replace the PC as learning tools. "The awkwardness of wiring and wired devices is giving way all over the world to wireless connections. This development is now impacting education and corporate training. The development of mobile learning is the new cutting edge in development, succeeding e-learning."

Personal digital assistants (PDAs) already provide access to course discussions, emails and assignments. Cell phones with high-resolution color displays, polyphonic sound and built-in video cameras can connect students to classmates and their professors. Learners may stream or download audio and video content or applications over the air and even participate in a video conference.

As futurist Toffler predicted thirty years ago, the day would arise when everything from shopping, personal banking and research to attending college would be accomplished from the convenience of one's living room. What remains to be understood is whether "home" will ever again have the same meaning, with family members plugged in to their own high-tech device of choice--only to wave to one another on their way out the door.

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Posted 03-07-2005 8:49 PM by Doug Casey