Online students at the University of Phoenix get better results than their counterparts who physically attend classes, according to its former president.
Jorge Klor de Alva last month told the Fusion 2000 conference in Glasgow that the 14,000 distance education students "simply do better" than the 60,000 who study on campus at the fee-paying institution.
He attributed their success to the design of the university's online environment. There are nine students per class, compared with 14 per class on campus. Each online class is split into groups of two or three that work together.
Students may be in any of the 24 countries from which Phoenix has enrolments, and even though they may never have met, Dr Klor de Alva said they "interact extensively".
The academic, who has taught at Princeton and Berkeley universities, earlier this year assumed a role in the Apollo Group, which owns Phoenix and three other educational institutions including the Western International University.
He conceded that there were some "special moments" that could only occur in a physical lecture or tutorial, but that they were so rare that they did not compare with the possibility of having a student "in the front row" all the time.
Dr Klor de Alva said that most classroom interaction was boring for many students and the resulting lack of reason for engagement led to the high dropout rates suffered on conventional courses.
The university's online students must log on for five days every week. All learning materials are available on the net.
Phoenix has offered online courses since 1989 and was one of the first institutions to do so. About 95 per cent of its students are working adults. Bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees, as well as certificate programmes, are offered.
Growth in enrolment for distance courses is 40 per cent a year, compared with 23 per cent for those on campus, a fact Dr Klor de Alva attributed to the flexibility of studying online. Many students travel extensively for business, making it difficult to attend lectures at specific times.
"That is extremely appealing to a lot of people and that is why we have the growth that we do," he said.
Many of Phoenix's courses are driven by the corporate world and are often devised in conjunction with employers.
The courses also operate on a rolling system so if students need to drop a course for, say, family reasons, they need wait only a few weeks before being able to recommence.
With 40 per cent of the US workforce changing jobs every year, Dr Klor de Alva said the need for transferable skills and lifelong learning was becoming more acute.