Still, the boom in online learning of the last few years has made me a bit queasy and not only because of my technological insecurities. The idea of spending four years at home looking at Windows instead of sitting in a lively classroom looking out windows seemed about as much fun as screening prospective dates over the Web versus scoping them out in person. I could see the convenience factor for students balancing graduate study with jobs and families, older students looking for enrichment or far-flung recruits in the U.S. Army, which just launched a $600 million online learning initiative. But I had more trouble with the vision of millions of doe-eyed eighteen year-olds dialing up for degrees without leaving their desks. Sure, digital diplomas are often cheaper than the traditional parchment ones, but I assumed that virtual students got precisely what they paid for a fraction of the collegiate experience devoid of all the time-honored rituals like keg parties and all-nighters during finals.
I confirmed my hypothesis last summer when I took a class on Shakespeare's plays from the University of California at Berkeley's online extension school. As for the course itself, I was pleasantly surprised. The lectures were enthralling and the work demanding. The feedback from my professor, Mary Ann Koory, was voluminous, near instantaneous and often launched a spirited e-mail chain between us. I had much more contact with her than with many a teacher who presided over a packed lecture hall. And in certain ways, I got to know her much better than my own thesis adviser, who had to juggle his class preparation, graduate students and writing books. (I even knew when she came down with the flu because it meant she was a day or two late with her comments on a paper I'd submitted.) But while the course was cerebrally engaging, socially it was a dud. Discussions, a series of time-delayed postings on message boards, were stilted and there were almost no opportunities for class bonding. The only rite of passage I endured was my first Internet chat session.
Online learning clearly won't be toppling the ivory tower anytime soon. But I now can see how it might augment it. Fairleigh Dickinson University, which announced in September that it would be the first-ever school to require its full-time unders to take one course online each year, may be onto something. Imagine if you could take that required science gut course online as opposed to in a 500-person lecture or polish off that one nagging credit over the summer. Or if two classes conflicted, you could complete one over the Internet on your own time. And I would definitely do the same for any class starting before noon.