Just one month after a virtual university became the nation’s first fully online education venture to receive a stamp of approval from a major accrediting institution, a pair of reports were released that questioned the push to offer classes via the internet.

On April 7, the College Board issued a report warning that internet courses actually could hinder the progress of poor and minority students who have less exposure to computers than their white or more affluent peers. Another report, issued the same week by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said colleges lack sufficient knowledge about internet courses to justify their rapid growth.

“There’s this rush to get online and go virtual…Colleges, policy-makers, and [internet] providers who are driving this market need to think about broad access,” said Lawrence Gladieux, co-author of the College Board report.

Citing figures from the U.S. Commerce Department, the report said that while 41 percent of white households have a computer, only 19 percent of black families and 19 percent of Latino families do. The report also said 80 percent of freshmen at private universities used eMail in the past year, compared to 64 percent at public four-year colleges and 41 percent at public, historically black colleges.

“There is no doubt that the world wide web shatters barriers of time and space in the delivery of instruction,” the report said. “But its advent is also likely to create new barriers and inequities, simply because of differential availability of the required technology.”

The Institute for Higher Education Policy report, meanwhile, argued that studies haven’t explained a higher dropout rate for internet-based learners–32 percent compared to 4 percent in one study reviewed by researchers–or examined whether students do better from internet instruction alone or from a mix of internet and classroom-based learning.

The report by the Washington, D.C., think tank–which was funded by a grant from two teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association–also took issue with the conclusion of several studies that online courses can be just as rigorous and successful as those presented in a traditional classroom setting.

Supporters of online education were quick to dismiss the reports’ criticism. Some even suggested the reports were motivated more by faculty concerns about job security than they were by issues of quality and access.

“By using the new technology, you’re extending the university learning experience to more people,” said Gary Miller, associate vice president of distance education at Pennsylvania State University. “Because the new technology has not reached everyone yet isn’t a reason not to pursue it–if you use that line of thinking, there would be no college campuses in the country.”

Steve Crow, executive director of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting body for more than 900 colleges and universities, agreed.

“There is a considerable amount of fear within faculties that online education is a way to get rid of the faculty,” Crow said. “But it is my own personal opinion that distance education will not get rid of the faculty. It will, however, restucture how faculties do their work.”

Professors protest accreditation

In March, the North Central Association (NCA) drew criticism from the country’s leading organization of college professors when it accredited Jones International University, a virtual college based in Englewood, Colo., and the first fully online institution to receive approval from one of the six regional associations for accrediting U.S. colleges and schools.

James Perley, a biology professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio and chairman of the American Association of University Professors, (AAUP) committee on accrediting colleges and universities, sent a sharply-worded letter to Crow expressing the group’s “shock and dismay” at the decision to grant Jones accreditation and asking that it be reconsidered.

Launched in 1995, Jones International University offers 18 certification programs as well as undergraduate and master’s degree programs in business communications. About 950 students currently are enrolled in courses, according to Jones University president Pamela Pease.

The accreditation of Jones University offers significant benefits to its students: They can transfer credits more easily and are more likely to earn tuition reimbursements from their employers. But it also confers a legitimacy to the university and to online learning in general, many observers say.

“It gives credibility to all virtual institutions. That’s important,” Robert C. Albrecht, chief academic officer of Western Governors University, told the New York Times. Western Governors University is a virtual college with offices in Denver and Salt Lake City that is also seeking accreditation.

Other online programs have been accredited in the U.S., but as part of larger institutions that offer traditional as well as online programs. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Independent High School, for example, offers an online diploma program accredited by NCA, but its distance education program has provided accredited correspondence courses for the past 70 years.

In his letter, Perley said the AAUP supports the exploration of online learning, but takes objection to the fact that Jones employs only two full-time professors, offers courses that “lack substance,” and puts little emphasis on faculty research or scholarship.

Margaret Lee, chairwoman of the 15-person NCA commission that voted unanimously in favor of the Jones accreditation, said it was “absolutely unlikely” the group would reconsider its decision.

Lee, who is president of Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill., said she believed the letter was prompted by fear and a misunderstanding of online learning ventures. “To think you can limit learning to that old model–it’s just impossible,” she said.

College Board

http://www.collegeboard.org

Institute for Higher Education Policy

http://www.ihep.com

North Central Association of Colleges and Schools

http://www.nca.asu.edu

Jones International University

http://www.jonesinternational.edu

American Association of University Professors

http://www.aaup.org