Consider This . . . Online Courses

Like no other segment of our economy, the college community has been pushed and prodded by demands to offer more courses, at more times and in more locations at a time when budget restraints and reluctance to raise student fees are the order of the day. In my opinion, the online course (OC) may become the most significant part of the solution to this persistent and growing problem.

You may have read in one of my earlier articles that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has declared publicly that they will put every course offered at MIT online by 2007. MIT OC that you take for credit will require you to pay, but the MIT open course structure will allow anyone with an Internet connection to download, read and study any course for free.

The grand plan of MIT is not quite what I am describing as OC, but it can give you some sense of the importance that OC opportunities will play in our future. To put this trend into a more tangible example let's look at Anne Arundel Community College (AACC), the 2001 Community College of the Year as recognized by the National Alliance of Business. AACC offered their first OC in the fall of 1996 to 12 students; in 2002, they offered 92 courses to 2,167 students.

If you were to look at a trend line for AACC OC offerings and interpolate this growth data, you could conclude that by 2015 nearly half of all the 862 courses offered today would be accessible to students at AACC without ever visiting the Arnold campus or various satellite centers.

Based on student enrollments today, that means approximately 25,000 students could be educated using OC, and some, not all, of those students may never visit the campus except to attend graduation. As you might expect, some courses cannot be adapted to the OC format (art, science labs, etc.), but that list is small. As you can see from this simple analysis, the OC acceptance, growth and effect is dramatic. Everything from parking, the physical plant, class size, campus security and, most importantly, the dollar cost to deliver one credit hour would change. Access to this educational phenomenon is as close as your home, business or Internet café computer, thanks to faster and cheaper computers, the Internet and forward-thinking administrators.

If I now have you interested in online courses, you may be a bit confused about what OC really is. Let me try to define the OC as a process and let you know what you need to do to take full advantage and be successful.

I would describe an online course as an educational unit delivered electronically to a student over the Internet, where all interactions with instructors and fellow students are accomplished exclusively through email, bulletin boards, chat rooms, video segments, limited telephonic communications, and where testing is done remotely from the student's computer. I might note that remote testing is one area that educators do not universally accept.

To start the process you must go through the normal matriculation drill to become a student and, for some courses, there may be prerequisites. Once past this minor hurdle, there are relatively few guidelines or criteria, but the technical stuff tops the list. To function properly, in my opinion, you'll need a current generation computer, 1.8ghz or faster with 128 megs of Ram, Windows XP (although some earlier Windows operating systems will work), cable or DSL connection (although a modem is acceptable), and anti-virus software. Until recently, you would need a computer application like Microsoft Excel, Word, Power Point, Outlook or Access if you were taking these as online courses. AACC now allows you access to the Microsoft Suite of applications through their Citrix server so that you can access the actual program online rather than an older version you may have on your machine. If the list looks bewildering go to and use the AACC list. Their examples and illustrations are easy to follow and more comprehensive than my brief explanation here.

The final caveat relates to your own personal discipline. Can you follow written instructions? Are you self-motivated? Are you capable of independent learning? Can you keep pace with requirements posted by the professor? Are your skills on the computer and the Internet adequate? Only you can answer these questions, but I encourage you to be honest. Thanks to the Internet or, more specifically, the broadband portion like cable or DSL and secure servers and software, access to a college education or continuing education classes for professionals is just a click away 24/7 wherever you are in the world.

If you have comments or suggestions, or have an idea for a future computer or business topic, e-mail me at or

Jimmy R. Hammand, CPA, is a resident of Annapolis and a consultant to businesses in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington, D.C.


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