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The Ivy League Goes Online
2/1/06 - AOL Online Article
How can you be a Harvard student without walking through Harvard Yard on your way to class? Can you get an education from Columbia without walking down the famed steps in front of Low Memorial Library?

With online learning becoming an increasingly integral method for how schools deliver education to its students (many of whom earn entire degrees without ever stepping foot into a classroom), will it eventually be possible to earn an Ivy League degree without ever gracing the hallowed halls?

"The Ivies have been very cautious about online learning," explains Dr. Alan Drimmer, president of AIU Online, an accredited school offering eDegrees since 2001. "These schools have traditions of hundreds of years and weren't going to just jump in with two feet the way we have."

Considered to be the most prestigious learning institutions the country has to offer -- with long standing history and traditions -- it's easy to see why there is plenty of resistance among the Ivy League community when it comes to a comparatively new learning model. "It's always been controversial," explains Drimmer, who has advised schools like Cornell and Stanford on eLearning. "Most of the schools I've been associated with have a small group of enthusiasts, and a lot of skepticism. Not to mention these schools have very powerful alumni. How would a Harvard alum' feel sitting next to somebody who is getting the same degree [from behind a computer]? They are fearful of cheapening the degree."

However, despite the healthy dose of skepticism from traditionalist scholars, there are plenty of signs that online learning is slowly becoming integrated into the educational elite, specifically through executive and professional education offerings. "You'll always have people who are excited by [online learning] and people who are cautious," explains Ann Armstrong, executive director of Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation at Teachers College, a school within Columbia University. "The biggest concern surrounds being able to deliver the quality we are known for traditionally in the classroom over the Web." Teachers College started off by offering a few online courses, and now offers three online certificates that are New York-state approved. Columbia's Teacher's College is also in the process of creating its first fully online master's degree.

Armstrong says her interest in spearheading online learning initiatives comes from a somewhat personal perspective. "Having been a student at Columbia, I can say that I've experienced both on-campus and online coursework," she says. "If I had to pick the top five courses of my entire experience, two of them were online. I know that with the right instructor and set-up, learning online can be just as fulfilling, if not more so."

Though skepticism may abound among some academes and long-time professors, it seems like today's student voices are loud, clear, and technologically-savvy. "Since 2001 we've interacted with more than 8,000 students, delivered 24,000 unique courses, and serviced learners from 132 countries," says Chris Proulx, president and CEO of eCornell, a wholly owned subsidiary of Cornell University. Though at the moment, the school does not provide coursework for credit, its training programs interact with Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, School of Hotel Administration, and Johnson Graduate School of Management. "Our focus is on professional and executive education. We service individuals who are interested in career advancement certificates -- we train the Fortune 1000."

With that many students, though, and a reach that is essentially global, traditionalists may wonder if greater accessibility waters down Cornell's prestigious name. "A lot of organizations that train their employees through our coursework really value the ability to integrate a Cornell executive education experience into their training initiative," says Proulx. "They get a high level of service from us, just like they have come to expect from an Ivy League university. And just because there is a greater reach, doesn't mean your admission standards change. You're looking for a certain quality of student who is going to interact in your program."

Likewise, the Harvard University Extension School offers 75 online courses available for undergraduate or graduate credit by offering videotaped lectures online, along with other course materials. While there are currently no fully online degree programs offered at Harvard, at the school's 2005 commencement, President Lawrence Summers emphasized the importance of embracing the marriage of education and technology. "Information technology offers the potential to multiply manifold the number of students and scholars with access to Harvard's unique intellectual resources," he said, encouraging the schools to "think creatively and boldly about how they can extend the reach of their excellence through technology in the years ahead."

Only time will tell what the future relationship between online learning and the Ivies will entail, but according to Len Evenchik, director of distance learning at Harvard Extension School, continued growth is inevitable. "I see online learning growing steadily at Ivy League institutions over the next decade."
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