Online classes getting popular

ORLANDO, Fla.-Rising tuition, crowded classes and busy lifestyles are forcing more and more students off university campuses and onto the Internet, where a college degree could be as close as a laptop computer.

Online programs have flooded the market since universities and private companies first introduced them in the 1990s.

There are signs, though, that “e-learning” is growing more popular as more state universities such as the University of Central Florida offer programs.

The U.S. Department of Education has estimated that in 2003 more than 2 million people will be enrolled in so-called distance-education programs, which include online classes. In 1995, at least 500,000 students were involved in distance-education programs, when most used video and radio to learn off campus, the Education Department reports.

After a week jammed with corporate meetings and computer-network problems, Alex Moiseev leaves his Orlando office on Fridays and heads to Saint Leo University.

But instead of traveling two hours to the university’s Tampa-area campus, Moiseev simply drives home. There, the 26-year-old computer-science major trades his business suit for a T-shirt and shorts and plops in front of his home computer for lessons.

Another year on Saint Leo’s online program, and he will finish a bachelor’s degree _ in about half the time it would take in a traditional classroom.

“I can manage my own time; I can schedule my own times of study, my own times to take the tests,” said Moiseev, who works for a bank and has taken classes while on business trips and family visits. “Basically, you’re pretty much in control of the entire thing.”

It is a trend that has grown in fits and starts. Across the country, some prestigious universities created independent institutions offering e-learning. But the demand wasn’t there, so many closed or reorganized.

“Originally, I think people thought online education would just mushroom, and that just didn’t happen,” said Diane E. Rogers, vice president for governmental and external relations for the national Council for Higher Education Accreditation. “There hasn’t been as much demand for attending purely online universities.”

But as more people have incorporated the Internet into their everyday lives from paying bills to buying things studying online no longer seems extraordinary. Online learning isn’t for everyone because it requires a higher degree of self-discipline. Students have to set their own pace.

The American Association of University Professors is worried about dropout rates. Thirty-two percent to 64 percent of online learners drop their studies compared to 4 percent to 15 percent of traditional students, according to the agency’s studies in 2000.

Critics of online education argue that, outside the classroom, students lose the benefit of working one-on-one with instructors and discussing issues with colleagues.

Educators and lawmakers are looking for ways to support online classes, which would allow universities to take in more students without needing more space.

University of Central Florida administrators said about 40 percent of students took at least one online course during the past school year. There, online professors frequently focus more on coursework than tests to gauge student progress, said online instructor Mary Lou Sole, interim director of UCF’s nursing school.

They use e-mail and Internet message boards and chat rooms to talk with students a technique that Sole said encourages more pupils to participate in lessons.

Moiseev, the bank employee, said he gets more individualized attention from online professors because he doesn’t compete with crowds of students for help as he would in a traditional classroom.

“I feel there’s a much more personal communication going back and forth, and you’re being treated like a professional,” he said.