The California State University system has now joined with the University of California to offer entire degree programs through online instruction.
Students are already able to access a few master's degrees online, but the new effort from both institutions offers the possibility that tens of thousands of students will be able to earn degrees without ever stepping into a traditional classroom or campus environment.
Promoters of online education offer all kinds of benefits from the new instruction system.
Among them, the university will be able to extend its reach to students unable to attend a traditional institution; the university will be able to reach students all over the world; and the university will be able to stretch its ever-shrinking resources.
Yes, sir, with a computer at his or her disposal, anyone can access the university and its bounty.
Gosh, this sounds so high-tech! But there's another side to this picture.
First off, let's call a spade a spade. Online instruction is an incredibly inexpensive way for the university to enrich its coffers for a minimal investment.
Instead of spatial limitations associated with a classroom or even an auditorium, the same class could be "offered" to thousands of students simultaneously--thousands of students paying the same tuition as those on campus.
Of course, left unsaid is how any professor will mark thousands of papers or exams.
Second, there's the question of integrity. How will online courses minimize the possibilities of cheating on exams?
Are we to assume that all--or even most--students will abide by on honor code?
University officials say this "detail" will be worked out, but examples elsewhere suggest the problem is real.
Finally, there's the issue of quality learning.
Students gain much of their insight through the exchanges of ideas and values that come as a result of classroom interaction.
This often under-appreciated exercise places the professor as the provacateur, an individual who challenges students to think and process in ways they might not do as individuals staring at their computer.
Online chats don't get close to simulating the classroom experience.
Sound corny? Perhaps, but it's part of the foundation of what we call a liberal (not to be confused with the political construct of the term) education.
This is not to suggest that online instruction doesn't have a place in the university. It does.
But its utility is much more beneficial in a "how to" environment of engineering and many sciences rather than the "what if" and "how about" settings of the social sciences. In fact, some would argue that in today's crammed academic environment, these questions aren't asked enough as it is.
Maybe there's some room for online learning in the university, particularly if the integrity issue can be managed.
But it's hard not to believe that the more the university relies on this approach for instruction (and income!), the more that students will be deprived of an all-around quality education.
But then, maybe that doesn't matter as long as the books balance.