Gregg Ramsay is a busy man. He's director of online education at Capitol College in Laurel, where he teaches computer programming and software engineering. He teaches ethics and labor history at Pace University in New York. There's the other work of a professor: attending faculty meetings, advising students.
But in one important respect, Ramsay is different from most professors: He does all of his work from a western New Hampshire mountainside.
"I'm six steps from work, and my seven cats are my only traffic jam," Ramsay says. "I've been teaching for 25 years, and I'll never go back to the classroom."
Ramsay, 47, is among those who are pulverizing traditional academic concepts of time and space. His students are all over the world in 24 time zones. Most have little interest in the trappings of traditional higher education: homecomings, football games and the like. Spurred by the development of the Internet in the mid-1990s, online computer teaching has become the fastest-growing segment of higher education.
Enrollment in distance education courses nationally has more than doubled since 1997, to 3 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education. A growing number are full-time students who live on campuses such as that of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., and take classes over the computer.
Online education has mushroomed in Maryland during the same period. Nearly 82,000 students signed up for 2,300 online courses delivered by Maryland colleges and universities last year, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. Expressed as a full-time equivalent, that's enough to fill a campus the size of Towson University.
The University of Maryland University College (UMUC), the oldest and by far the largest of the state's distance learning schools - its worldwide online enrollment, bolstered by students in the military, has just passed 100,000 - is becoming the transfer choice of two-year community college graduates. Many are older students with families and jobs.
"What's happened with distance education is incredible, just incredible," says David Sumler, director of academic affairs for the higher education commission.
Sumler says distance education's growth in Maryland is uneven. Independent colleges and universities that serve students of traditional college age generally haven't jumped on the bandwagon, he says.
The online leaders in Maryland, besides UMUC, which also offers an array of traditional courses, are a handful of large community colleges and state universities such as the University of Baltimore. Among them, these schools offer 73 degree programs, up from just 17 in 1997, that don't require students to budge from their homes or office computers.
Online offerings, many designed for adults looking to change jobs or advance in a career, tend to be heavy on business and technology and light on the liberal arts. But UMUC students can major in history and English, and take a course in Shakespeare or the "cross-cultural perspectives of aging."
Because there are no geographic limits, online students can choose from among hundreds of schools, from the University of Phoenix, the world's largest private college, with 164,000 students, 72,000 of them online, to small, unaccredited operations that Sumler says "shouldn't be trusted."
Quality control is a problem in the online world, says Sumler, because courses can be beamed from anywhere, and most are taught off-campus by part-time instructors. UMUC professors undergo rigorous training in teaching by computer, but some students complain.
"It was a waste of $900," says one student of an advanced calculus class. "It offered very little assistance or direction." She asked not to be named because she is taking other courses at the university.
A typical course originates - and is received - in cluttered basement offices after the kids are in bed. Andrea Dufrenne of Annapolis has taken a dozen online courses, earning a degree from Anne Arundel Community College. She's working on her bachelor's degree from a Chicago university, also online. "It's not for everybody. You have to be disciplined," says Dufrenne, 40, a day care provider with an 8-year-old child. "But nobody's looking over your shoulder. There's no commute. Foul weather doesn't bother you, and you don't have to dress up."
Dufrenne says there's nothing lonely about online courses. The older generation of one-way distance learning - courses taught by television or prerecorded video - is being supplanted by e-mail, computer bulletin boards and chat rooms. "It's quite easy to get to know your fellow students," Dufrenne says.
Bryan Harrison, a bank branch manager in Southern Maryland, is earning a master's in business administration from UMUC. Harrison uses a wheelchair, but he says distance education isn't a mobility issue for him. "It's a time issue," he says. "I run a bank branch, I've got three kids I'm trying to help with after-school coaching. The only time I can get things done is at night."
Not in real time
Most online courses, including all of UMUC's, are "asynchronous" - not conducted in real time, although UMUC students must visit one of the centers scattered around the world to take a proctored final examination. In these courses, professors post materials and assignments on the Internet by e-mail.
A typical deadline is "Tuesday by midnight." Students respond in kind. They're required to communicate not only with their professor, but also with each other while the professor looks on electronically.
A feature of most UMUC courses is an online student discussion called a "conference."
"It's a wonderful idea," says Eva J. Allen, who teaches a popular art history course. "I'll post a question, and the students toss it around over a six-day period." Allen says art history is particularly suited for online teaching. Every major museum in the world has a Web site, she notes, "which means the world's great art is at the students' fingertips."
Capitol College, Ramsay's employer, offers courses "synchronously," in real time, and with sound. The disadvantage is that students in Egypt have to be up at 3 a.m. for a class taught in the early evening in Maryland.
"We feel strongly that we need to maintain as much of the traditional classroom atmosphere as we can," says G. William Troxler, the Capitol president. "It's not really face to face, but it's as close as we can get to it online."
Give and take
On a summer evening, David Ward, a Federal Communications Commission lawyer, teaches a Capitol College course, "Identifying and Integrating Component Collaboration Technologies." A dozen students sign in and ask questions about the previous week's homework assignment. There's plenty of give and take during the 3 1/2 -hour session, and Ward becomes so absorbed that he has to be reminded to call a refreshment and potty break.
At the end of the session, which is electronically recorded and indexed for students who miss the class or need review, the students push a key. Two hands clapping appear on the screen.
"I always take a poll at the beginning of the course to see where they're from," Ward says. "Typically, half are from the Baltimore, D.C. and Northern Virginia area, the other half literally from anywhere in the world. I've had students on aircraft carriers. Last year I had two Korean nationals who worked for the phone company there."
There's a healthy debate among educators about whether a human element is sacrificed in online education. Online professors can't witness students' body language. If they tell a joke - and many rely on humor - they have no idea how it's received. Some liken the online atmosphere to that of E.M. Forster's pre-World War I short story, "The Machine Stops," in which every need is met and every act controlled by a machine.
"I have to have a piece of chalk in my hand to make any sense, the way Thomas Aquinas did 800 years ago," says Stephen Vicchio, a philosophy professor at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. "If I can't see the faces, I can't know anything about them."
Charles F. Ritter, chairman of Notre Dame's history and political science department, has been at the school 36 years. "There's a dynamic in a classroom," he says, "and I never know what it's going to be when I walk in. I just don't see how spontaneous, inspirational learning can be reproduced online."
But proponents say that when it's done right, with constant feedback from students and teachers who know how to use the technology, online education has distinct advantages.
"You actually get to know students better online," says Ramsay, the mountainside professor who is earning a degree from a California law school - online, of course. "I know that sounds crazy, but it's true. You spend more time with them, and you give more thought to what they say simply because you don't see their reaction right away."
Chris Dreisbach, Vicchio's philosophy department colleague, has introduced online learning to Notre Dame, to the dismay of some professors. "It's not the perfect replacement for the classroom, but it's adequate," Dreisbach says. "There's a unique kind of dynamic in online teaching. Because you don't get their body language and smiles, you're tied to their thought purely."
Everyone agrees that virtual education is hard work for teacher and student. "I'm teaching my first online course," says Julie Porosky Hamlin, executive director of Maryland Online, a consortium of Maryland schools engaged in distance learning. "It's consuming me. Managing an online classroom is a huge task. You have to respond to all of those assignments and e-mails coming in at all hours. You have to keep track of everyone. You can't run and hide online."
Nor is virtual education for everyone, says Gerald A. Heeger, who presides over UMUC's growing enterprise from his office in Adelphi. (It overlooks the football stadium at the neighboring University of Maryland, College Park.)
"If I'm going to have coronary bypass surgery, I'm sure not going to want a physician who's only done that procedure online," he says.
Heeger observes that many colleges and universities are combining online and traditional methods. The University of Phoenix features a program called FlexNet, in which the first and last class sessions are face to face, the rest online. Heeger predicts that in a few years, a student at the Johns Hopkins University might take three traditional courses, a fourth taught online by a professor at another college and a fifth, also online, taught jointly by professors at Hopkins and another university.
Online education, Heeger says, "is possibly the biggest event in American intellectual life in the past 40 years. What's happened is that a critical mass of intellectual capital in this country has moved outside the academy."