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When today's college graduates get together for a reunion someday they may decide to do it by computer. That's because a new survey indicates that nearly one in five college students takes at least one class online. Online ed is growing more rapidly than traditional education. And for professors, the growth of e-learning has meant a shift in the way they deal with students.

NPR's Larry Abramson spent time with a couple of online teachers at the University of Illinois in Springfield, which has a well-established virtual curriculum.

LARRY ABRAMSON: It's 6:00 p.m., Miller Time for some college profs, but not Sara Cordell.

Professor SARA CORDELL (University of Illinois at Springfield): Hi, Jerry. Are you sitting there? First of all, I want to check on the sound if you are.

ABRAMSON: Cordell is sitting at her computer in her campus office to chat with a half-dozen students gathered in front of their screens. One's in Tennessee, another's in California's Central Valley, another in Ohio. They're all here to talk about Thomas Hardy's 19th century novel, "Tess of the d'Urbervilles."

Prof. CORDELL: Well, does Alec d'Urberville rape Tess? Does he seduce her?

ABRAMSON: Professor Cordell has a microphone hooked up to her PC and her students listen from home. All but one them type their responses, which appear in chat format on Cordell's screen. If you've never done this before, it looks kind of awkward - the natural flow of a regular class is missing as responses arrive onscreen in a digital flood.

But wait a minute. There's something else here you don't see in a regular college class. All the students are paying attention, and they're engaged.

Prof. CORDELL: Max, what is the significance of sexuality anyway? Wow, what a question, and that is a question Rooney(ph) does not pose. Is it power? Does Tess feel powerful when she feels beautiful?

Mr. MAX PARISH (Student): I'm just thinking about the (unintelligible) where Tess is talking with Alec at the end of the book.

ABRAMSON: One student named Max Parish has his microphone hooked up, and he chimes in. Max is 22. He lives in a small town in California's San Joaquin Valley and works sometimes as an electrician. He says Springfield's English program is the only online bachelors program he could find. Max says he does miss the give-and-take of a traditional classroom.

Mr. PARISH: But an advantage with online stuff is that because people have to type, you have to think more about what you say before you say it. So you usually end up with a lot more intelligent conversation.

ABRAMSON: Sara Cordell has been teaching offline for 25 years, online for four. Cordell is in her 50s, and she says she was initially skeptical about how meaningful an English class could be online, but now she's a convert. And she says online classes conducted in real time like this have a special kind of immediacy.

Prof. CORDELL: Yeah, they're right there. They're listening. And they like talking to each other, you know, typing to each other. They - that, I think, is a big attraction, because they get to engage in real time with the other students as much as with me.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving. And please know that I'll expect you to work just as hard next week, even though it's a holiday. Good night, everybody.

ABRAMSON: Cordell signs off, but the class actually never goes to sleep. The students, including one mother of six, will keep the conversation going on what's known as the asynchronous part of the class - a billboard, where written assignments are posted. That means the work never stops. And many online teachers say no question teaching an online class is more work.

Professor DENISE KELLE (University of Illinois at Springfield): In my experience it takes about twice as long - prep time, putting materials together, to actually deliver the online course than it does to deliver the on-campus course.

ABRAMSON: That's Denise Kelle, a professor of environmental policy at Springfield. Kelle is a tall woman, intense and enthusiastic in everything she does. That's especially true when she teaches her regular classroom courses.

Prof. KELLE: You've got discretionary time, discretionary income, a public that is now entranced with seeing the wild. We're building all of those roads despite Abbey taking down every surveyor as cruise markers.

ABRAMSON: This is Kelle's course on literature and the environment. She's talking about how the idea of wilderness changed as Americans became more mobile in the 1960s, and about how writers like Edward Abbey reacted with horror to what he referred to as industrial tourism. This is an on-ground course. That means that real students come to this windowless classroom for a regular class meeting. And part of the show is Denise Kelle.

Prof. KELLE: (Singing) See the USA in your Chevrolet.

(Speaking) This was the commercials around the late '60s and early '70s. I can get in my Chevrolet, tour the whole West in two weeks with my family, right?

ABRAMSON: Like many undergraduate courses, this class is filled with young faces, students having the classic American experience of going away to college for four years. But when Kelle moves to her online course, the population changes.

Prof. KELLE: This class is all working professionals with the exception of two. They all start posting Friday at about 4:00.

ABRAMSON: Back in her office, Kelle is showing me what her online course on environmental policy looks like and sounds like.

Prof. KELLE: Consider an example from Yellowstone National Park in your deliberations over what is the natural. Up until about the 1930s, wolves in parks were...

ABRAMSON: For this course, Kelle prepares and records lectures. Students can listen at their own pace and follow along with the PowerPoint presentation that's timed to go with the audio. If they get bored, they can jump ahead. Students who fall behind can listen to the lecture again - on their iPods, if they like.

But Kelle says preparing a formal lecture like this is something she would never do for a regular course, and this is why it takes so long to do an online class.

Prof. KELLE: I can't do what we just did. I can't reread the same material I know my students just read, have the 10 points I know I want to get to in an hour, and let them get there. So I might say it's controversy and inherent part of the political process.

ABRAMSON: Kelle responds online to a student.

(Soundbite of typing)

Prof. KELLE: How would you defend...

ABRAMSON: Kelle says she feels just as close to these distant students as she does to those in her on-campus classes. Take Jeff Schwartz, who's taking her course on environmental policy from far away. Schwartz is a park ranger. He's just moved from Yellowstone to Joshua National Park, so environmental policy is more than academic to him.

Prof. KELLE: He wouldn't be able to physically be at a university for an on-ground class, is why he's in our masters online program. I also know personal things about them, just like I do with my on-ground students. He's going back to D.C. for the holidays. I know all those same kind of little things about these students that I would about my on-ground class.

ABRAMSON: Those relationships are getting deeper and warmer, thanks in part to growing sophistication about how to teach effectively online.

More on that tomorrow.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can read more about the growth of online education and meet some teachers from the University of Illinois at Springfield by, of course, going online. You can start at npr.org.

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