As long as the term "distance education"hasbeen around, traditional educators have regarded it with trepidation. While its reputation has improved somewhat over the years as more brick-and-mortar institutions have launched their own distance-education programs, there remains a certain amount of caution and uncertainty surrounding the topic.

The recent controversy surrounding the accreditation of the all-virtual Jones International University by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools didn't improve things for distance education or online universities. The decision to accredit Jones drew criticism from, among others, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which argued that accrediting an online university that couldn't provide adequate academic counseling or library support went against all accreditation standards.

As online universities continue to fight to establish solid reputations and prove distance education can be as effective as traditional education, another factor has come into play. Private companies are now getting into the online-education business. Some educators say that may cause the validity of virtual schools to come under fire all over again.

Big Fish

In May, Harcourt General announced plans to launch an independent, degree-granting online university. Bestknownforits production of college textbooks, assessment tools and testing materials, the huge conglomerate is the largest institution -- and the first academic publisher -- to make a foray into distance education.

Harcourt's for-profit university will offer bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in four areas of study -- business, health-care systems and administration, information technology and general studies.

Robert V. Antonucci, director of the university project and CEO of Harcourt Learning Direct, said plans to launch the university began developing a few years ago. "It's part of a long-term strategy to expand our company's offerings from publishing to learning," he said.

Antonucci, who came to Harcourt after serving as commissioner of education for Massachusetts from 1992 to 1998, said the company's plans were jumpstarted after it purchased National Education Corp. (NEC) in 1997. "One of the units within NEC was ICS Learning Systems, a 110-year-old company that specialized in correspondence education courses. Our intent was to take the current business and bring it to a higher level by getting all programs certified and licensed, and to begin to create an Internet university offering those high-quality courses as part of an accredited and licensed degree program," he said.

Harcourt spent the following year-and-a-half working with a consulting firm to develop a strategic plan for launching the university. The company is now developing more than 100 online courses and hiring various faculty and staff. At press time, Harcourt was preparing to apply for a license from the Massachusetts Board of Education. Assuming it is granted the license, the company will then apply for accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Harcourt hopes to begin offering online courses next fall.

Challenges Ahead

Acknowledging distance education's sometimes-troubled reputation, Antonucci is quick to point out that accreditation and credibility are paramount at Harcourt. "This university will have the same quality standards as a regular university," he said. "We're not looking for any exceptions. We want the barrier to be kept high."

Still, Harcourt will face much opposition, particularly from college professors concerned that Internet-based education denies students the personal interaction central to a traditional learning experience. They feel a lack of support will mean poor service from online schools, which will eventually lose all credibility and fade away.

Harcourt will also face strong competition from universities already offering online courses. Robert Myers is senior vice president for policy, planning and administration at the University of Maryland University College, a school with one of the largest distance-education programs in the country. Myers said Harcourt's plans have made faculty at UMUC take notice. "It creates a mild sense of worry," he said. "[It] does for us what a little bit