Gregg Ramsay is a busy man. He's director of online education at Capitol College in Laurel, Md., where he teaches computer programming and software engineering. He teaches ethics and labor history at Pace University in New York. There's the other work of a professor: attending faculty meetings, advising students.
But in one important respect, Ramsay is different from most professors: He does all of his work from a western New Hampshire mountainside.
"I'm six steps from work, and my seven cats are my only traffic jam," Ramsay says. "I've been teaching for 25 years, and I'll never go back to the classroom."
Ramsay, 47, is among those who are pulverizing traditional academic concepts of time and space. His students are all over the world in 24 time zones. Most have little interest in the trappings of traditional higher education: homecomings, football games and the like. Spurred by the development of the Internet in the mid-1990s, online computer teaching has become the fastest-growing segment of higher education.
Enrollment in distance education courses nationally has more than doubled since 1997, to 3 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
"What's happened with distance education is incredible, just incredible," says David Sumler, director of academic affairs for the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Online offerings, many designed for adults looking to change jobs or advance in a career, tend to be heavy on business and technology and light on the liberal arts.
Because there are no geographic limits, online students can choose from among hundreds of schools, from the University of Phoenix, the world's largest private college, with 164,000 students, 72,000 of them online, to small, unaccredited operations that Sumler says "shouldn't be trusted."
Quality control is a problem in the online world, says Sumler, because courses can be beamed from anywhere, and most are taught off-campus by part-time instructors.
A typical course originates -- and is received -- in cluttered basement offices after the kids are in bed. Andrea Dufrenne of Annapolis, Md., has taken a dozen online courses, earning a degree from Anne Arundel Community College. She's working on her bachelor's degree from a Chicago university, also online. "It's not for everybody. You have to be disciplined," says Dufrenne, 40, a day care provider with an 8-year-old child. "But nobody's looking over your shoulder. There's no commute. Foul weather doesn't bother you, and you don't have to dress up."
Dufrenne says there's nothing lonely about online courses. The older generation of one-way distance learning -- courses taught by television or prerecorded video -- is being supplanted by e-mail, computer bulletin boards and chat rooms. "It's quite easy to get to know your fellow students," Dufrenne says.
Most online courses are "asynchronous" -- not conducted in real time.
A typical deadline is "Tuesday by midnight." Students respond in kind. They're required to communicate not only with their professor, but also with each other while the professor looks on electronically.
Capitol College, Ramsay's employer, offers courses "synchronously," in real time, and with sound. The disadvantage is that students in Egypt have to be up at 3 a.m. for a class taught in the early evening from New Hampshire.
"We feel strongly that we need to maintain as much of the traditional classroom atmosphere as we can," says G. William Troxler, the Capitol president. "It's not really face to face, but it's as close as we can get to it online."
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