Online Education An Issue Of Profiting By Degrees

When basketball star Shaquille O’Neal belatedly earned his college degree last month, he declared, “Thank god for the Internet.” The January-February issue of Mother Jones would not doubt his sincerity, but it might well raise questions about the academic worthiness of his endeavor. It takes a hard look at campuses nationwide rushing to go online in “Digital Diplomas,” a most critical dissection of a seemingly unstoppable trend in higher education. O’Neal, who is not a subject of the cover story, left Louisiana State University early eight years ago to dunk basketballs and now earns about $20 million a year. He stands characteristically tall at the moment as the most famous online graduate of what the politically left-leaning near-monthly deems the troubling “brave new world of higher education.”

It’s estimated that more than half of the colleges and universities offer some courses over the Internet, part of a growing market in what is tagged virtual learning that, according to Merrill Lynch, could constitute a business with $7 billion in annual revenues by the year 2003. A few schools, like New Jersey’s Seton Hall University and the University of Colorado, offer bachelor’s and master’s degrees achieved entirely online. The magazine does not discount the allure of all this, but discerns growing anxiety over the possibility that commercial, not academic, considerations rule, especially as institutions see the possibility for hawking their wares for nice profits. No one disputes the ease with which the Internet can transfer information. The questions really arise as to how the actual educational experience would be altered, — especially as often-crucial face-to-face meetings with teachers become something else — and whether the nation would be headed toward a two-tiered system of on-campus and online diplomas, with the former likely to remain more prestigious and influential.

The two-tier, possibly class-based, potential may be hinted at by the belief thatonline learning would tend to draw single mothers and working parents. It is also possible that such a social reality might lead to online learning becoming more focused on lower-cost education, aimed at producing workers for low- and mid-level jobs. For sure, there are large sums of money at stake. For example, the University of Chicago has cut a deal with, a venture of the convicted junk bond king Michael Milken, to offer partner schools what one industry publication estimated to be $20 million in royalties over five to eight years for the right to use the schools’ names to marketonline courses. The initial qualms over such an enterprise have to do with the profit incentive and how that might in some fashion dilute, and possibly pollute, a university’s mission. At minimum, it serves to sharpen a discussion that will surely become more lively as the years roll on — and Shaquille O’Neal looks back even more proudly on his online degree in general studies (assuming he hasn’t simply purchased his alma mater by then).

Quickly: In an interview with the January-February National Geographic Traveler, flamboyant Virgin Airlines chief Richard Branson says he tries to find out where anairline’s crew is staying, then books there since those spots are “reasonably priced and always a lot more fun than most typical business hotels.” He also indicates that he’s exploring the notion of Virgin Dating, so, “If you’re sitting in seat 3G and I’m in 2A, you will be able to send a message to my seat telling me you want to meet me, or one to my neighbor discreetly asking them if they will change seats.” . . . The combined Dec. 25-Jan. 1 Sports Illustrated included an homage to great rank-and-file sports fans around the land, as well as a poll of pro athletes on related matters, such as the dumbest fans (basketball’s Vancouver Grizzlies and football’s Oakland Raiders are among the losers) and best groupies (the Los Angeles Lakers’ and Miami Dolphins’, among others). It includes choicest lines they’ve heard from hecklers (“You could give aspirin a headache”) and best retort by a player (“You’d better check your wife, a ballplayer is missing”). . . . The realist photographer Helen Levitt, whose best efforts were in the 1930s and 1940s, is the subject of a lovely symposium, marked by critiques of specific shots from the likes of documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, in the winter Threepenny Review ($5, 1426 Oxford St., Berkeley, CA 94709). “Levitt’s photographs are marvelous exactly because they make mystery from fact,” writes Janna Malamud Smith in dissecting one of Levitt’s shots of graffiti, this a chalk stick figure of a woman whom one takes to be a housewife.

Deepa Singh
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