on pricing for classes.

There are a number of reasons some online programs failed because of pricing. But the prime factor seems to be choice. Offer a pricey course on Shakespeare and Net-savvy students might just look for similar content on the Web that costs little or nothing to download and read.

"Remember, this is a new world order where the clientele interested in online education really have choices," said Green.

The Western Governors University (WGU) used to add a surcharge to fees for classes it provided through its system but were developed and maintained by other colleges. Students quickly learned that by going directly to the school where the course was created, they could bypass the surcharge. WGU now has dropped the surcharge.

"You've got to remember online students are savvy consumers," said Robert Mendenhall, president of WGU. "These are adults who know how to shop for what they want."

Another mistake made by academic institutions was to offer content but not enough infrastructure for the online students and their faculty. One of the biggest criticisms of online education has been the high dropout rate. Students often feel isolated taking a course online, while teachers can be overwhelmed in their attempts to migrate courses from classrooms to the Internet.

"People who are looking for courses online are not just looking for dry content, they want some level of interaction, a little bit of high-touch," said Green. He said Phoenix University and Jones International understand that online learning isn't just about content, but it's about creating infrastructure that supports content.

WGU also has learned that lesson. Incoming students are given an orientation course about online learning, showing them how threaded discussions and online chats can help them interact and learn. To create a sense of community, faculty mentors stay in touch with students, who also are encouraged to form support groups.

The support groups are important, according to Mendenhall. Occasionally, students will withdraw from the class work for a week to a month, then find it very hard to return because they feel isolated. Support groups help the student stay part of the community of learners, even if they pause in their studies.

Colleges and universities also underestimated the cost of starting and operating online courses. Developing an online course can be significantly more expensive than a classroom course, according to experts. Some dot-com firms that tried to launch for-profit online education programs spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a single course.

Faculty hired to teach online courses often receive a fixed payment for teaching the class. What's overlooked is the effort the professor must make to move the class online. That can drive up the cost significantly, but colleges don't always factor those additional costs, according to Green. "Higher education doesn't have a good sense of cost accounting," he remarked.

Still Evolving

Online education does work when colleges and universities take the time to figure out their own strengths and assess the market they want to serve. The adult higher education market is quite large, Green pointed out. At the same time, technology continues to get better and demand for individual courses and degrees keeps growing. As a result, online learning is a way to expand the education market, says Green. Just make sure that online education projects are tied to the economies of the market.

Nor should institutions of higher learning assume that what we know now about online education will become the status quo.

"It's still evolving," continued Green. "What was true two years ago isn't true today. What's true today isn't going to be what we know in the next four years."

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor