The grand e-learning epiphany arrives in different ways. For William Noyes, the vision came sharply during a Caribbean vacation in 1992: The Internet could bring higher education to islanders he met.
In pursuit of that dream, Dr. Noyes soon quit his 28-year job as an administrator at the University of Arizona. Now, he's president of Magellan University, one of a handful of fledgling "virtual universities" pitching higher education-for-a-profit on the World Wide Web.
"American higher education will be transformed by this," Noyes says of online education. "When we first started, I told people: 'I'm developing an online university,' and they'd say, 'what's he talking about?' Now everyone understands."
Magellan "went live" in 1997. But instead of a leafy campus with Gothic spires, Noyes's vision of higher education begins in a modest Tucson, Ariz., office jammed with computers, routers, and high-speed Internet connections linking 1,000 students in several countries to a busy Magellan University Web site.
Instead of full-time professors, Magellan has 15 non-tenured "instructors" across the nation teaching about 40 on-line courses. And, instead of dorms packed to the gills with undergraduates - well, Magellan has no dorms. It also has no police force, no psychological counseling, no drunken frat parties, and no football games or homecoming.
What Magellan does have is 1,000 or so mostly 25-years-or-older students scattered worldwide - like Kevin Osar in Elgin, Ill. Fortunately for Magellan, Mr. Osar isn't interested in frats or football or face-to-face chats with his teacher. That's because by day he's a full-time salesman in a Chicago commodities-trading firm. By evening and weekends and pretty much anytime he feels like it, he shifts to online university student. He sits down at his home computer to file his homework assignments and "chat" on the course Web site with fellow students and his professor.
If he works hard and passes this basic Magellan course in how computers work, Osar says he stands a good chance of passing an A-Plus industry certification test that could lead to a desired career shift.
"If I send my professor an e-mail in the morning, by lunch I have a response," he says. "We hold class discussions in a chat room. There isn't any face to face. So the instructor has to be more aware of what each student is learning based on how I answer the essay questions, the multiple-choice questions, the [chat room] posts."
Leading those class discussions is Jeff Parker, who has a PhD in computer science and sits at a computer in his home in Sitka, Alaska. Before the class began, he had Osar and his 10 other classmates post biographies of themselves, including pictures, so the class would get to know one another. It didn't create a warm and fuzzy feeling, he says, but it helped.
"Socialization," especially institutional loyalty, is something Noyes feels should be part of an online university experience. He admits this is one area that could be tough.
"I've been talking to presidents of some of the other virtual universities, and we're thinking maybe what we need are virtual football teams," he laughs. "Maybe then we could have virtual games and a virtual mascot" to boost student spirit.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society