In 1992, Kevin Kimma had three kids and a hectic engineering job at Northern Telecom in Santa Clara, Calif., and the last thing he wanted to do was attend college classes several nights a week. But after the company refused to consider him for a position because he lacked a bachelor's degree, Kimma took action. He enrolled in a bachelor's program offered by the online campus of the University of Phoenix. Each night, he downloaded materials and communicated by E-mail with professors and classmates. And in just under three years, he earned his sheepskin. Now 43 and a manager at Octel Communications in Milpitas, Calif., Kimma is halfway through an online MBA program at UOP.
A growing number of schools are tailoring long-distance learning programs for busy adults whose locations, work hours, family obligations, or disabilities prevent them from showing up on campus. Using video and audioconferences, online computer networks, and shared databases, students can earn undergrad and graduate degrees in a variety of fields, from accounting to sociology.
CIVIL WAR. In all, about 18% of distance learning programs concentrate on business, 16% on engineering, 10% on liberal arts, 10% on health services, and 9% on education, according to Barbara Lawrence, a vice-president at Peterson's, publisher of Peterson's Distance Learning guide ($24.95). Even the Public Broadcasting Service is involved. The PBS Adult Learning Satellite Service delivers more than 70 courses, including one based on The Civil War series, to some 2,000 colleges.
Many schools build their programs around what educators call an "asynchronous" learning network in which students can commute by modem, 24 hours every day, without having to adhere to rigid schedules. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has issued about $20 million in grants to schools that offer asynchronous learning, including New York, Stanford, and Pennsylvania State universities.
The Virtual College at NYU's School of Continuing Education, for example, offers an advanced professional certificate in information technology worth 16 credits. At a minimum, prospective students must have a Windows-capable PC, a bachelor's degree, and the ability to obtain high-speed ISDN phone service. The cost is $550 per credit, and classes are limited to about 20 students. The emphasis is on student-teacher discussions and student group projects. NYU uses Lotus Notes to monitor each student's work. Teachers are available by phone.
FACULTY. Of course, prospective students should do some homework to get to know the virtual colleges, says Sally Johnstone, director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications. She recommends asking about accreditation and how admissions, tuition, and financial aid are handled. Students often must take the same pre-college exams and pay the same per-credit rates as they would for onsite campus offerings. You should also ask whether the online school taps the college's faculty and if students have access to the library, guidance counselors, and long-distance registration.
Another key issue is how the college reports your work to the outside world. Regardless of the quality of education you receive online, there could be a stigma attached to an electronic degree. "The quality is very high, but that doesn't mean perception is very high," says Pam Dixon, author of the upcoming Virtual College ($9.95, Peterson's). You aren't obliged to spell out the fashion in which you earned your degrees on a resume or in an interview. If asked, Dixon advises graduates to stress the positive: that the program is fully accredited and that as someone engaging in independent study, you were self-motivated, disciplined, and comfortable with technology.
Virtual colleges are not appropriate for every student, topic, or degree program and may occasionally involve some face time on campus, particularly for subjects that require lab work. Without normal visual cues, an instructor can't always determine whether students are getting it. In addition, you may have to spend time learning to use the technology before you tackle the subject matter. And PCs crash. So instead of using the excuse that the dog ate your homework, you may find yourself mumbling that "the hard drive gobbled it." That way, at least, you might have a case.