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Can Distance Learning Go the Distance? [Fast Forward, The Washington Post]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Special to The Washington Post
Fast Forward, Business

When Dorothy Hennessey gets home from her job at the Department of Defense, she does what most mothers of three do. She makes sure the kids – ages 4, 8 and 12 – are playing quietly or doing their homework, straightens up the house a little and starts to cook dinner.

Some days, though, Hennessey, 33, does what many other parents only dream of: She saunters up to her bedroom, puts on her pajamas and turns on her computer to log on to the online course she’s taking to get her M.B.A. through Strayer College.

Classes meet twice a week online, from 6:15 p.m. to 10 p.m. Hennessey logs on to the school’s Web page http://www.strayerdl.edu, heads for her class’s page and fires up a special program.

The instructor delivers a brief lecture in voice and text, reviewing assigned chapters and quizzing students. Students respond on their keyboards; often, small groups break off into separate chat rooms to discuss the issue at hand.

Hennessey says all this typing is more interactive and more effective than courses she’s taken on campus.

“I am learning more than I would if I was sitting in the back of the class…. When the teacher could call on you at any given moment, you have to pay attention,” she says.

“The computer seems to bring people out of their shells,” she adds. “When they don’t have to look anyone directly in the face they feel more comfortable to say what is on their mind.”

Critics of online programs often say the absence of face-to-face interaction lessens the learning experience. But for a single mom such as Hennessey, it isn’t a problem – she says an online degree program is the only way she’d be able to get a master’s degree.

“I would never have been able to afford to pay a babysitter plus… tuition if I attended a traditional master’s program,” says Hennessey, who is due to get her M.B.A. this fall. “Without an online program, I would have had to have waited another 10 or 15 years until my kids graduated from high school.”

Hennessey is part of a revolution in higher education. Last year she was among the 190,000 students across the country enrolled in 25,700 online courses, according to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics and InterEd, an Arizona-based higher education research firm.

Of the 11 major colleges and universities based in the Washington area, six offer at least one online course, although only three offer one or more degree programs online – Strayer College, George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College (see the box at left for details).

Of those, only the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), which taught 1,650 students in more than 50 online courses in the last semester, has mastered the delivery system, says InterEd’s Tucker. The school got into the distance learning business some 25 years ago, starting with TV broadcasts of classes to satellite auditoriums in Charles County, Shady Grove and Annapolis; by the spring of 2000, UMUC expects to offer 150 online courses.

For many schools, though, moving classes online may not be so straight-forward. For one thing, it can cost a great deal to put courses online – a cost sometimes handed off to students. (At local schools, however, costs are the same; GWU, starved for class space in Foggy Bottom, actually charges much less – about $725 for a three-credit course online, against $2,000 for an equivalent offline course.) And unexpected glitches can snag online programs – when American University offered a legal ethics course online last year, one student dropped it because his dyslexia made it difficult to keep up with the required typing.

In other respects, however, online programs need not work too differently from their offline counterparts. There usually isn’t a separate registration – students just choose the online offerings in the course catalogue (itself often available online). Individual classes don’t take any longer – although students and professors report they spend more time preparing for online classes. And when test time rolls around, students almost always head back into traditional classrooms.

Those classrooms aren’t about to become obsolete, it seems – especially when it comes to undergraduate education.

“Many of the important elements of a university education have little to do with the mastery of basic skills,” says Lynn Nelson, professor of history at the University of Kansas. “The experience of making new friends, sharing of experiences, debating with one’s peers, walking and talking with one’s professor – all of these and much more lie at the heart of a university education.”

On the other hand, fewer and fewer college students are actually in the tender 18 to 23 age bracket. A 1996-1997 reports by the National Center for Education Statistics shows that 43 percent of all U.S. college students are 25 or older. And many educators say they need to market their courses to the mature, busy student.

Don Langenberg, chancellor of the University of Maryland system, says once the logistics are worked out, online classes will be the way most people go to school in the future.

“I predict that in the future only the very rich will be reading Chaucer under oak trees on a quaint campus. The rest of the American student body will be paying schools so they can log on to this week’s discussion in ‘Abnormal Psychology,’ in between coming home from work, cooking dinner and putting the kids to bed.”

But that leaves one other question unanswered: Don’t most parents want to get their kids out of the house?

Looking at Distance Learning

Online degree programs at local schools:

George Washington University
2121 Eye St. NW, Washington, DC 20052


The Graduate School of Education and Human Development offers an educational technology leadership degree. Contact: William Lynch, director; 202/994-6862, blynch@gwis2.circ.gwu.edu.

The School of Business and Public Management offers a master’s degree in project management. Contact: William Wells; 202/994-6678, bwells@gwis2.circ. gwu.edu.

The School of Medicine and Health Sciences has a degree program for military students. Contact: Kristin Williams, assistant dean of Health Sciences; 202/994-7316.

Strayer Distance Learning
8382-F Terminal Rd., Lorton, VA 22079
Contact: John Tucker, director of distance learning; 800/422-8055


Master’s of science degrees in accounting, business administration and information systems. The program started in January 1996 with two online courses attended by 22 students; this spring, 522 students will take 33 online courses.

University of Maryland
University College
University Boulevard at Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20742
Contact: Eugene Rubin, associate vice president, instructional development; 301/985-7826, erubin@nova.umuc.edu.

The biggest online program in the area, UMUC has four online degree programs:

general administration,
computer systems management,
technology management and
international management.


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• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.