Staff Reporter

Alongside 24,000 undergraduates, UCLA student Suni Sidhu often feels lost in the crowd. But that doesn't mean he's ready to skip class entirely and do all his learning via the Internet.

"It's important to hear what others are saying and learn from your instructor as well as your peers," said the 21-year-old mass media major. "I could never see myself doing this from my living room."

Sidhu isn't alone. Local colleges and universities, even major ones like UCLA, are a long way from being ready to offer much online teaching, despite the popularity of online classes for the adult education market.

Currently, USC, UCLA, Pepperdine University, Loyola Marymount University or California State University, Los Angeles only provide Web-enabling devices for professors and students to send e-mail, obtain class syllabi, participate in chat rooms and check in for virtual office hours. Both USC and Cal State L.A. do offer a handful of online classes in certain departments, such as computer science and biology, to provide for flexibility of scheduling.

That's a far cry from what former Gov. Pete Wilson envisioned two years ago when he spearheaded the creation of the California Virtual University. That program was supposed to be a central Web site where users could access classes from universities throughout the state system. But a lack of funding has meant that the site is little more than an online course catalog. And individual universities have been slow to offer online courses.

"We're not planning to offer undergraduate degrees as far as I know in the near future, but it's not to say that we're not making progress in technology," said Judith Ellis, special assistant to the vice provost of academic initiatives at the University of California. "We're not Luddites. Some of our degrees in the future may offer digital courses, but at this time our concern is the residential needs of our students."

Even private universities, with more resources to offer such courses, aren't rushing to online teaching.

"It would be premature for us to say we are moving aggressively toward investing in technology, but that's not to say that won't change a year from now. We have a committee that is looking at the issues and we're monitoring other similar institutions like ours to see what our next step is," said John Silvester, USC's vice provost for scholarly technology.

For many schools, shifting to online learning presents a host of difficulties. Often it can cost a good deal to put classes online, and glitches can occur in downloads. More serious concerns involve the economic impact on universities if students choose not to live on campus, as well as intellectual property issues involved with Internet courses.

Analysts expect university officials to become more accepting of the technology. By 2002, the number of students enrolled in online programs, which range from videoconferencing to Web-based courses, will increase 300 percent to 2.23 million, according to International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. Though the number still represents only a fraction of the 14 million students attending higher-education universities, the growth potential is huge.

"We think it will show dramatic growth as both professors and students become more comfortable with the tools of the trade, course availability grows and information systems departments invest more money," said Sau Lau, an analyst at IDC.

Furthermore, many universities and adult-learning centers are offering online certificate and advanced-degree programs targeted at working adults who want to advance their education.

USC, for example, recently started a master's of gerontology program that has enrolled 15 students who live as far away as Alaska and New York, and will take all their classes online. This fall, USC's Marshall School of Business will launch an executive education certificate program in running e-commerce businesses.

"It's a format that has been well received from our students, who fit the objective behind online learning. Our average student is 43 years old and has an income of $75,000," said Kathy McGuire, UCLA Extension's manager for the distant learning program.

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