Jon Marcus follows the growth of online US courses and the anxieties the development engenders in the nation's academics.
An increasing number of Americans are attending college on a campus without classrooms. More than 5,000 academic courses are being furnished on computer networks straight into the nation's homes and offices, and such technology is winning mainstream recognition with the announcement of a "virtual university'' connecting public institutions in 11 western states. Private companies also are jumping into the field.
"It's like everything else on the Internet: there's a huge amount of potential there," says Carl Tyson, president of the college division of the publisher Harcourt Brace and head of University Online, an electronic education company.
"It's not only a philosophically good thing. I think it's a financially good thing," said Mr Tyson, the highest-ranked executive to join the fledgling industry. "There's a huge demand in the world for education and information."
There also is concern about a looming increase in enrolment at state-supported institutions already strapped for space and money.
Electronic education "does provide a means of delivering high-quality knowledge in an efficient way," says governor of Utah, Michael Leavitt, who is one of the originators of the plan among the growing western states to create a virtual university.
"We now have classes on our campuses that may be taught five days a week and the students go into an auditorium with 500 people and listen to a professor or a teaching assistant," Governor Leavitt said. "Isn't it a better use of the building and that professor's time to allow the students to listen on their own time to the lectures on a CD-Rom, then meet with the professor in a small group where they can just ask questions?" Students save the cost of travelling to class or living on a campus, though proponents hasten to point out that electronic courses are a supplement to traditional higher education - not a substitute.
"You're still going to have universities and colleges that have an atmosphere of learning," said Matt Sugar, spokesman for Colorado Governor Roy Romer. "You can't have a virtual university football team."
The universities of Illinois and North Carolina and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York all already offer electronic education on their campuses. The New School for Social Research in Manhattan has more than 180 electronic graduate and undergraduate courses in its "connected education" programme, which features an on-line "cafe" where students and professors can converse.
Lectures are delivered on demand and students log on at their convenience, dialling up a course from home. Professors correspond by email, questions are posted on the Internet to test proficiency and book chapters can be downloaded from the network.
"Online education has enormous potential to revolutionise education globally," said Bob Stone, director of the Division of Independent Study in the sparsely populated western state of North Dakota.
Faculty are leery of these new developments - though not because they fear they will be replaced by personal computers. So far, their anxiety is over copyright, and faculty whose courses may be broadcast electronically are pressing for more pay. "As we see it, it's taking publishing rights in a whole new direction," says Marcia Adler, director of government relations for the American Association of University Professors. "There's obviously concern about that."
Students, on the other hand, are flocking to the Internet. The Globewide Network Academy, a non-profit online catalogue of electronic courses, reports that 10,000 people daily scan its Web site, which boasts 5,000 subjects taught electronically by universities around the world.
"As each semester comes along, you see more and more courses on-line," says Joseph Wang, the organisation's president and a University of Texas undergraduate.
Mr Wang sees the growth of online college as a boon for students as they can choose the best course in a given topic without regard to distance, schedule or other factors.
"The Internet will allow more competition between universities, and the universities will have to make a very strong effort to make sure their courses are the strongest in that subject."
The western states are trying to add stability to the process by accrediting online education. They plan to develop course materials and software and to share the cost.
"Look, technology is everywhere," says Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems in Boulder, Colorado, who is helping plan the western virtual university. "The question was, how do you certify that learning and make it portable?" Accredited courses, which can lead to a degree, are already the most popular, Mr Wang said. They also are the most expensive, averaging $300 each compared to $60 for a class that does not lead to a degree.
But a university degree is not the only goal for people who subscribe to electronic courses. University Online, for example, targets mid-career professionals concerned about maintaining their CVs.
American corporations spend an estimated $50 billion annually on training. Mr Tyson says: "Even if it's really only half that much, it's still big. There's a huge demand for business education."
University Online has invested more than $100 million to develop and test the concept. Its customers include the US military and several major corporations.
Employees who take courses electronically save companies the travel and accommodation costs and do not have to rearrange their schedules, he says. And as for the suppliers, "when you can scale a course you normally offer three times a year to 30 students and now you can offer it to 3,000 students, you only have to create the course one time and your transaction cost is low."
Other companies also like those margins. Ziff-Davis, the publisher of PC Week magazine and other popular computer magazines, has launched ZD Net University, with online courses in technology. Jones International Ltd, the parent of the nation's seventh-largest cable television company, has announced plans for an online business college for working adults, called International University College.
"This needs to be part of the educational experience of every student," Governor Leavitt says. "This is the way the world will work in the future and a person's educational experience will be incomplete unless they know how to use the tools of technology."