While checking out your books at the public library here, you can also sign up to start (or finish) your college education. Then you can begin your first class that day, attending lectures at your convenience. You don't have to turn up on a campus for classes at some fixed time: You can fit your study into your life at the times that best suit your schedule. You can learn at your own speed , zipping through in two weeks, or stretching the work over six months.
The vehicle for this flexibility is the versatile videocassette. Chicago librarians and college educators are using it to make college lecture courses available at neighborhood libraries for adults who might not otherwise be able to continue their studies.
"You can start a course at any time, watch your taped lessons at the library whenever you like and as many times as you like," says Susan Kryczka, who runs the program, called Study Unlimited, for Chicago City-Wide College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago.
"My favorite student was a woman 8 1/2 months pregnant," Ms. Kryczka recalls. "she signed up for our course in child development, and whizzed through eight lessons a day; completed the course in two weeks. She finished on March 14th, and her baby was born three days later!"
There are more than 20 courses available, including anthropology, business, history, humanities, mathematics, Spanish, and psychology. Twelve of the courses earn college credits, and those cost $15 a credit hour, or $45 for an entire course. These courses have study guides and tests, which can be taken at the library. Students mail in their homework, and can talk with instructors over the telephone or make appointments to see them. Interestingly, few students ever request face-to- face visits.
Adults also may study this way to earn their high school equivalency diploma (GED), to prepare to earn credit by examination through the College-level Examination Program (CLEP), or just for personal enrichment. Such offerings as music, consumer economics, and personal management attract many senior citizens. In all, some 1,700 people take videocasette courses at the library each year.
"This is the most convenient and enjoyable way for me to study," says June Griffin, who is taking Psychology 201 and Business 111 at the Central Library on Michigan Avenue. "I can come in after work if I feel up to it that day, or skip it if I don't and do two lessons the next night."
Other students speak of their apprehension in going back to a classroom -- they like the security of knowing they can go over a lesson again if they feel they haven't taken it all in.
To get a degree at present, students have to take additional courses at one of the City Colleges' campuses. But Ms. Kryczka would like to eventually offer two-year associate in arts degrees entirely via library-based study through videocassettes.
How does it feel to learn from a television set instead of from a live teacher? It might put off some people, but the ones who choose Study Unlimited don't mind.Said one: "I took a year and a half of regular college courses before I had to drop out to go to work. I find the lecturers on the cassette courses better prepared and more interesting than most of the professors I had. I guess they're chosen because they're better than average -- and maybe they prepare more carefully than for a classroom session."
Chicagoans are not strangers to learning from tV. For more than 20 years the City Colleges have operated "TV College," in which hundreds of students have pursued AA degrees. "TV College" is still on the air, but many people prefer Study Unlimited because of its greater flexibility -- allowing them to pick their own hours -- and the larger selection of courses.
The newest wrinkle of STudy Unlimited is to reach into the country's prisons through their libraries and educational programs. Prisoners in the Cook County Jail and other facilities now can pursue college studies, earn their high-school diplomas, or just learn a useful skill via videocassettes.