When Mesa resident Brandi Walsh decided to go back to school and get a degree in digital publishing, she wanted to avoid what she calls "seat time."
Being trapped in a classroom three times a week just didn’t fit into the 24-year-old freelance graphic artist’s hectic schedule. She wanted flexibility and independence. So Walsh opted to take the majority of her classes online through Mesa Community College.
"I would rather work at my computer from home," she said. "That’s truly what it came down to."
The decision of Walsh and others to ditch the traditional bricks-and-mortar model and log on for an education is fueling the phenomenal growth of elearning locally and nationwide and turning it into a billion-dollar industry.
In the East Valley, students have a variety of options whether their goal is getting a degree, earning continuing education credits or changing careers. The leading local providers of online courses, Tempebased Rio Salado Community College, Arizona State University and the University of Phoenix, have experienced tremendous growth in their online enrollment — 10 percent, 30 percent and 37 percent respectively since last year.
Despite increased popularity, some critics say growth at some for-profit institutions is more a product of marketing than the quality of instruction or degrees.
"Distance education (online and mixed media) in the United States is much more of a commercial venture," said Marina McIsaac, professor emeritus of education technology at ASU. "Many schools are competing for the same students. It’s forcing academic institutions to look a little more carefully at what they offer and how they’re competing in the marketplace."
Eduventures, a Bostonbased educational research firm, estimated enrollment in online programs in- creases 40 percent each year and by 2005, online education will generate $4 billion for public and private institutions.
"It’s mind-boggling to think how far it’s come in a short period of time," said Laura Palmer Noone, president of the University of Phoenix.
Officials at Rio Salado, which was founded 25 years ago solely to provide distance learning, discovered early they would have to provide a vast array of services to help students and faculty successfully navigate the system. Technical support, centralized curriculum, small classes and services such as "Call a Tutor," a service linking students to tutors seven days a week, have made Rio Salado a popular online choice.
"Truly it was just a hunch that this was going to be really big," said Linda Thor, president of Rio Salado Community College. "We are positioning ourselves to accommodate 100,000 students."
Students and instructors say the work is far more rigorous online than in a faceto-face class. Because e-mail is the primary mode of communication, students have to be more reflective when writing the response to a discussion question or completing homework assignments.
"You make students more responsible," McIsaac said. "Students can’t just show up for lecture three times a week and doze off in the back of the room."
Despite the rigorous nature and popularity of online courses, some employers and recruiters are wary of hiring recent graduates with an online degree from schools such as the University of Phoenix.
"They’re not very highly regarded," said John Spencer, founder of Phoenixbased Fountainhead Staffing. "I’ve literally had customers throw resumes back at me and say ‘I’m not paying a fee for someone coming out of there.’ . . . Employers want grads from ASU or (University of Arizona)."
But Patricia Williamson, first vice president of human resources at Bank One, said, "I as a hiring person would not think less of someone with an online degree. It tells me a lot about a person. It shows initiative and organization. On the flip side, I see some of my peers in the HR community who have an internal bias."
Noone dismissed the notion that an online degree is somehow less valid than one obtained from a traditional institution.
"People who lodge those assertions are guilty of a lot of willful ignorance," Noone said. "The whole point of this is students are supposed to be learning. We shouldn’t care how they get there."
Some experts say institutions such as the University of Phoenix are moving in the right direction. As their graduates begin to flood the marketplace and demonstrate their worth, employers will eventually come around.
"It will depend on where you get it (the degree)," McIsaac said. "I think people will stop dismissing online degrees outright and begin looking at where you got your degree."