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eBay 101: Copious notes, hard questions

eBay University, a cross between a traveling business school and a religious revival, inspires discussion from the auction-savvy and the extremely frustrated.

OAK BROOK, Ill.--All around the country, eBay aficionados are going back to school.

It's called eBay University, and it is a cross between a traveling business school, an enthusiast's convention and a religious revival. Fans of the Web's most popular auction site can get marketing tips and lessons in HTML (Hypertext Markup Language), and even instructions on how to use escrow services and online credit card systems.

Crowded into a Marriott Hotel ballroom in this Chicago suburb recently, more than 1,000 eBay sellers and buyers from miles around paid their $25 tuition fee to take notes in their 217-page course packet and grill instructors on the ins and outs of the site.

"I'm totally mixed up on eBay," one middle-aged student told an instructor during a break between lectures, which ranged from "Browsing and Buying" to "Advanced Selling Tips." "It keeps kicking me back when I try to enter my password. I even tried to sign up as a fictitious person, but because I have the same e-mail it won't let me do that."

The seminar has toured to 26 cities in the United States and Canada and will travel to Sydney, Australia, this summer.

A deluxe version of eBay University called eBay Live, which will have three days of classes supplemented by a keynote speech by eBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman, is scheduled for June 21 to 23 in Anaheim, Calif.

But back in Oak Brook, where questions from the mostly graying audience ranged from the highly technical to the extremely frustrated, the students were honored with the presence of the guru of eBay "how to" literature.

Marsha Collier is the Los Angeles-area marketer who co-wrote "eBay for Dummies" and holds the sole byline on "Starting an eBay Business for Dummies," now published by John Wiley & Sons. Collier is also Webmaster of Marsha Collier's Cool eBay Tools, a popular eBay advice site that attracted more than 200,000 unique visitors last month, Collier said.

Collier is one of several instructors who lectures during the course of a typical eBay University school day, but in recognition of her growing following, eBay gives her top billing.

"This is my second eBay University," said George Ruzich, of Orland Park, Ill. "At the first one, Marsha spent about 10 minutes with me, and I thought she was really brilliant."

Collier paces the stage with the fervor of an evangelist and the severe wit of a high school English teacher, dispensing advice with a healthy dose of sarcasm.

"The item title is your most valuable real estate," Collier preaches from the lectern. "You will see many item titles that say, 'WOW,' or 'HOT.' Now, how many people do you think searched for your item on 'WOW'? Or, 'I want to find items that are "HOT" today'?"

Collier, who like her eBay University teaching colleagues sports a black button-down shirt with a bright eBay logo, treads a precarious line between corporate sponsorship and editorial independence.

"I am not an eBay employee. I do not work for eBay," Collier insisted in an interview between lectures. "There is a lot to be said for editorial integrity, and I feel that part of the draw of my following is that people know I'm going to tell them the truth and not the company line."

Despite Collier's claim that she does not work for eBay, she said the auction company pays her, through her company, The Collier Company, to teach eBay University courses. She does not own shares of eBay stock.

eBay representatives did not respond to questions seeking comment.

Collier says, however, that her contract with eBay gives her the freedom to say whatever she wants about the service and the company.

Several of Collier's tips in her morning "Basic Selling" course told students how to cut corners and shave fees off eBay's final bill to the seller.

In addition to eBay University and eBay Live, the company offers a number of online resources to show eBay "newbies" the ropes. These include online workshops and audio how-to guides.

eBay University students appeared motivated and diligent. Attrition between the morning and afternoon sessions was minimal.

Still, some eBay University students voiced dissatisfaction with the quality of their education. One particular sticking point: class size.

"When I walked in here I wanted to know when we were breaking out into sections, and they looked at me like they had no idea what I was talking about," said Carol Olsen, a Glen Ellyn resident who teaches computer skills to liberal arts majors at Columbia College in Chicago. "They're just standing up there and talking to a thousand people. How can you teach HTML like that? For the money we paid, they could have afforded to break us out into smaller groups."