A new trend
Jennifer Pressly, a student at the University of North Texas, said she would rather take her history course in her dorm room than in a packed lecture hall.

“I take convenience over lectures," Pressly told The Dallas Morning News last year. "I think I would be bored to death if I took it in lecture."

Pressly chose Internet classes so she could stay in her pajamas. Other students choose distance education so they could work during the day or take internships away from their college campus.

For whatever reason, college students are turning toward an Internet education in a trend growing across the nation. Fifty-six percent of colleges and universities offered distance courses in 2000-01, according to a 2003 report released by the U.S. Department of Education.

But while proponents cite their convenience, some studies have exposed the drawbacks to cyberspace classes, which include loss of social interaction and the inability to determine whether a student cheats.

Mark Maddix, a professor at Northwest Nazarene University, said successful online students are self-disciplined and highly motivated to learn.

“To be a successful online learner requires the student to be active, creative, and engaged in the entire learning process,” Maddix said on his school’s Web site. “One of the great benefits that students have in the online class is the amount of time available for reflection and response.”

Maddix said then when a professor poses a question to an online class, students have to opportunity to research and take time to think about the question before answering. But in a regular classroom setting, he said, a professor would expect an answer immediately.

A professor’s most important job in an online class is promoting student participation and maintaining interactivity, according to the 2002 edition of the International Journal of Instructional Media.

The journal cited a study that found social interaction to be the most pertinent factor to a student’s success in an Internet class.

“A ‘sufficient’ level of interaction with faculty, however defined, generally creates a ‘sense of personalization and customization of learning’ and helps students overcome feelings of remoteness -- perhaps the greatest obstacle to distance learning,” Robert H. Woods wrote in the international journal. “Infrequent interaction with instructors was among the reasons given by students for not completing distance education courses.”

Web-based chat rooms and discussion boards are just a few of the ways to encourage interactivity. But Stanford University researchers found that "the more time people spend on the Internet the more they lose contact with the social environment," according to the journal of instructional media.

Some cyberspace classes require students to take their tests on campus or off-campus with a proctor. But other classes allow students to test over the Web.

Students could have their notes by their computer or have someone else take the test.

The Fresno Bee reported that officials at the California State University -- Fresno are investigating allegations that men's basketball players turned in assignments for their correspondence courses that were done by someone else.

“It is something we are always alert to and conscientious of," Brian Mueller, chief executive officer of the University of Phoenix's online program told The Bee.

In California, Chabot College instructor Larry Beal proved that it’s easy to commit academic fraud in cyberspace when he took an online computer class using a friend’s identity.

“All I am is the messenger. This system is badly flawed," Beal told a reporter for ANG Newspapers. "It's not fair to students. Whether the class is online or a regular lecture class, on transcripts, they both look exactly the same."

But Jannett Jackson, associate dean of the Learning Resources Center at Fresno City College, said that instructors get to know the students well through assignments and postings on Web bulletin boards.

"You get to know their style of writing and vernacular,” Jackson told The Bee. “If they have another student come in, you usually pick up on it."

Dropout rates are also a concern. Thirty-two to 64 percent of Web-based learners drop their studies compared to 4 percent to 15 percent of traditional students, the American Association of University Professors reported in 2000.

But cyberspace courses work for Alex Moiseev, who juggles classes and a job at a bank. Moiseev said he gets more individualized attention in St. Leo’s University’s online program. He doesn’t have to compete with students for time with professors, and he doesn’t have to worry about finding a parking space for class.

"I feel there's a much more personal communication going back and forth, and you're being treated like a professional," Moiseev told The Orlando Sentinel.

Distance education on the rise at the University of Texas -- Arlington.

A poll from TechTV on virtual education.

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