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Internet

Net learning in class by itself

Virtual universities are teeming with life and learning as online education booms worldwide.

Thom Foulks has taught courses before. But he did it the old fashioned way: in front of a classroom full of people.

Today, Foulks conducts classes that span the globe from the comfort of his own home in Colorado. He wouldn't have it any other way: Teaching online has changed his life.

"It's been one of the most invigorating experiences of my lifetime," Foulks said without a hint of sarcasm. "In my first class I had a student body that ranged from Paris and Australia and all across the United States."

Foulks teaches for ZD Net University, which just moved from CompuServe onto the Web to join the burgeoning market of virtual universities.

Yesterday, California said it was launching an initiative to market college courses and degrees through the Internet.

Classes available through the Net range from free courses teaching members of proprietary networks Internet skills to classes on literature and everything else you might find in a university setting. And, if sheer numbers of virtual university sites are any indication, the field is booming.

Tracy Marks, a software teacher and psychotherapist, knows why. She recently enrolled in a class offered by the Cambridge Center for Adult Education on Marketing on the World Wide Web.

The course does offer two face-to-face sessions, but so far, it has been conducted completely solely via an email list.

For Marks, the course offers several advantages. First of all, there's the convenience factor. "I am able to take the course at two in the morning if that's when I can take it," she said.

Plus, she added, the email interaction, which includes personal information, allows students to get to know each other in a way they wouldn't face to face.

"We all have reactions to people based on their physical appearance and the chemistry we feel with them," she said. In the online milieu, "I might be connecting to someone in this course that might put me off in real life."

Foulks, who teaches HotDog Pro HTML authoring, added that contrary to popular belief, the online learning experience does not hamper the ability for students and teachers to get to know each other.

In fact, he said, they may just end up knowing each other better online. Many of them, coming from all corners of the globe, certainly wouldn't get a chance otherwise to meet.

"The interactivity, although it's not face to face, is still there," he said. "All my students are pretty much mandated to at least introduce some personal comments about each other. You do get to know the people. You really do."

When he first started doing it a year ago, "I was awed by looking at my student body and the very fact that we could interact and communicate and everybody got something done. There were times I sat here, and I'm serious, I had tears in my eyes. It was joyous to see it actually works. There can be a worldwide community for this type of thing."

Marks said that as much as she loved the experience, she still prefers the classroom for the classes she teaches.

"I love the direct teaching experience," she said. "I love the connection with students and the energy that gets created."