STEVE INSKEEP, host:
If you want to see the future of higher education, look at your computer screen. A new survey says online education is growing at many times the rate of higher education overall. In fact, some colleges now require that students take at least one course online. In the past, some major schools have looked down on distance learning, fearing the quality could never measure up.
But in his second look at this subject, NPR's Larry Abramson reports that computer learning is beginning to come into its own.
LARRY ABRAMSON: The University of Illinois campus in Springfield is pretty small - about 5,000 students. Compared to the campuses in Chicago and Urbana-Champaign, Springfield is a tiny outpost on the prairie. But when it comes to online education, this school is a titan.
Professor MICHELE GRIBBINS (University of Illinois at Springfield): Do students find podcasts useful? Will students use their audio players to listen to podcasts? They're used to using their audio players for their own personal enjoyment.
ABRAMSON: Michele Gribbins of the school's Management Information Systems Department is addressing about 40 faculty members. These are not the adjunct faculty that staff many online programs; nearly all are regular professors with lots of experience teaching online. They are here to get better at what they do.
Professor BURKS OAKLEY (University of Illinois at Springfield): If I have to contact my students, I already have a blog set up. You know, just go to pac442d.blogspot.com, and Google takes care of it. I can reach my students.
ABRAMSON: The class is a mix of pedagogy seminar and tech fair. Professor Burks Oakley explains the advantages of running your own blog in case the campus site goes down.
Prof. OAKLEY: And I can set up a Wiki at PBwiki and we can go there, or at Wikispaces.org, and my students can now continue to work.
ABRAMSON: Some of the faculty roll their eyes and despair at the challenge of mastering all these toys. Many say it's all they can do to post the text of their lectures online.
After the seminar, I talk to Ted Mims; he's the chair of the Computer Science Department, and he says with or without gadgets he and his colleagues have to find a way to be more effective online.
Dr. TED MIMS (University of Illinois at Springfield): But I can assure you that the next generation of students coming on are 24/7 students; they want stuff right now and they don't want to come to your class and sit and listen to professor lecture, tell funny stories and do things. They want just what they need to succeed in that class and to get a job and be successful in life.
ABRAMSON: These seminars are one way this campus is trying to boost the quality of online teaching. Springfield provost Harry Berman says another is applying the same standards to online and offline courses.
Mr. HARRY BERMAN (Provost, University of Illinois at Springfield): It's the same faculty who are teaching our on-ground courses and our online courses. And these are faculty who are evaluated in the ways that we evaluate faculty in general. We don't differentiate between the evaluation of their online courses and their on-campus courses.
ABRAMSON: Springfield faculty are rather proud of their reputation for online education, and some are a little put off that their big brother up the interstate, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has decided to jump into online learning with both feet.
Dr. JOSEPH WHITE (President, University of Illinois): The world out there does everything online. Why not quality education?
ABRAMSON: Joe White is president of the University of Illinois system. He says the school held back on a big investment in online education, concerned that the technology and his faculty were not ready. But on January 1st, the university's global campus will light up. Without adding any new buildings, the university eventually hopes to reach over 10,000 new online students over the next few years.
President White says plenty of students will still come to campus to study and to watch the Fighting Illini play ball.
Dr. WHITE: But let's be honest. There are hundreds of thousands of people in the world who don't have the privilege of earning their education by, you know, leaving home, giving up their job, leaving the family, and, you know, living on one of these campuses or even commuting to one of these campuses.
ABRAMSON: The global campus is located, as it were, in a low-slung office park that looks more like a doctor's office than a college building. Here designers are working on getting the campus ready for opening day.
Mr. MICHAEL LINDEMEN (Designer): Pablo Paz(ph); that's my avatar. Yes.
ABRAMSON: Designer Michael Lindemen flies his avatar and online personality around a feature the university may use to give a little heart to this online campus. It's a meeting place in the virtual world known as Second Life.
Mr. LINDEMEN: But there is a coffee house. You'll kind of see through the window there a little place where you can get espressos and sit around here with your colleagues.
ABRAMSON: Okay. It's not Berkley's Cafe Med, where some of us wasted time in college, but it's getting there. If you find any of this strange, get over it. The next wave in e-Learning that's about to crash on our shores is m-Learning, as in mobile learning, delivered to your cell phone.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
INSKEEP: If you missed part one of our report about online education, don't worry, you can get an e-peat on your timetable, at npr.org.