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Working the wires


By day, Michael Blezien is a maintenance manager at Santafill/U.S.A. Waste Services, where he oversees a fleet of about 100 garbage trucks that serve southeastern Wisconsin, just as he has for the last 15 years. But by night, he is transformed into a tribal chieftain.

Bleizen presides over the "Keepers of the Page," a group of 15 HTML authors dedicated to "the betterment and advancement of HTML and Web page skills." After meeting in an introductory Web course at ZDNet University, an online school for computer training, the self-described "tribe" decided to continue their learning among themselves through online interaction, continuing education, and live conferencing.

"There were four or five of us who got fairly tight," said Bleizen, who is looking for a change after 26 years in the sanitation business. "So after the class, we formed a Web group for people that wanted to stay abreast of Web design issues, people who were really serious about pursuing a career. The tribe kept the group together."

While much of the hype surrounding electronic education focuses on connecting public schools and libraries to the Internet, the online learning revolution is taking place on people's home computers. Young entrepreneurs and mid-career professionals are heading to the Web in droves to stay ahead of the learning curve in a rapidly changing digital world that demands continued training as a necessary component of career development.

In the process, Web start-ups and high-tech companies are taking the first steps toward democratizing education--something that established universities have long been criticized for failing to do. Their courses are available to anyone with access to a computer modem, and students can take them at convenient times that allow them to keep their regular jobs.

Like other social revolutions, this one is being driven by workers. As a result, instead of lessons in English literature or Greek philosophy, most syllabi now on the Web offer such topics as nursing, crisis management, and C++ programming.

"Whereas there used to be a very neat distinction between education and training, it is now starting to blur," said Carol Twigg, vice president of Educom, a nonprofit consortium of higher education institutions that facilitates the use of information resources in teaching, learning, scholarship, and research.