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Suba Vasudevan

Imagine a sector within the IT industry, that too online, which earned $1.1 billion in 1999 and will touch $7.1 billion in sales by the end of the year 2002. Imagine sitting at home and being able to finish those important computer courses with few clicks of your mouse. Imagine training your entire staff, internationally, without having to fly them anywhere. Say hello to online learning.

The fact that this mode of learning is catching on makes available the possibility of greater quality education, quantity of offerings and better technologies to access them.

Looking for online learning websites and universities will have you meandering through so many of them - and all amazing sites too -- that you won't know which one to pick. With so many options, one of the challenges for individuals interested in e-learning is finding the right e-campus or training centre.

The first thing to do is narrow your choices down to what you want to study. Online, you can find distance education offered by international universities, portals catering only to the professional crowd either to enhance or brush up business skills, sites offering purely technical (IT and computer) courses and, finally, the popular mixed-breed sites with a huge mish-mash.

An impressive place for e-learning is Cardean University, via uNext. With academic partners like Stanford and Columbia University, and alliances with Oracle and IBM, it's considered one of the most promising players in the online education arena.

Then there's Digital University, with six departments offering sixty courses, from XML to Photoshop to creative writing for the new media to stand up comedy. It also offers professional educational courses in multimedia, graphic design, business and management. Sadly, all batches are, currently, full. Yes, that happens online too! OnlineLearning hosts 56 classes in business and management, 85 in education, 94 in computers (including certification training, certified internet webmaster series, computer programming, information systems, self-paced computer courses, and more), 31 classes in creative writing and 18 others including psychology, sociology, mathematics, physiology, health sciences, writing for fun, etc.

Amazed at the sheer enormity? There's more. They are interactive, have specific start and end dates, usually require textbooks, and provide the same levels of academic or professional credit. Every course also has its own Course Manager who is your primary contact for questions or problems that involve the mechanics of taking your class. The site also offers instructor-led continuing adult education and holds the worldwide electronic rights to classes developed by the UCLA (University of California, LA) Extension School for online delivery.

Claiming to be the first fully online accredited institution is Jones International University. Up for grabs here are Certificates of Learning in various fields, Bachelors and Masters degrees in Business Communications. An MBA degree costs $10,000. If interactivity bothers you, and you feel the need to interact with other students and your online teachers, these e-Universities have discussion forums, messaging boards, chat rooms and pre-appointed, time-based community sessions as well.

Hungry Minds offers courses by the University of California at Berkley Extension. One can master skills the hottest companies are looking for, according to the site, by enrolling for their tech and management courses. The site boasts 20,000 classes on its virtual shelves, all of which target lifelong learning needs of adults. It also has a tie-up with the e-campus eMind, a site for professionals with courses that focus on development across business chains.

Similar to eMind, is Bizzed, also meant for companies looking to train their staff. Yet another is Smart Planet with courses on computing and internet, arts and society, body and mind, career and business, finance and investing, hobbies and recreation, etc. With a standard membership (which includes a small annual fee) you get all free courses, plus unlimited access to hundreds of instructor-led and self-study programs.

Back in India, our very own NIIT Ltd has its NetVarsity, a one-stop online shop for all computer learning needs. And, rolling out from Boston's stable, by April 2001, is EduUnlimited. As Deepankar Mukhopadyay, MD, Boston's Education, says, "We will also have the option of classroom practicals, for interested students. As for their validity, they have equal merit as any on-ground course from Boston's."

According to him, interviewers reviews an applicant by his or her skill sets, how much they know and other such qualities, and not by whether they have studied in virtual or real classrooms. In the US, most companies seem to be echoing these sentiments. No wonder, then, that several traditional colleges, including the University of Chicago and Stanford University, have moved to the online world.

You also have unique ones like Quality University On-Line, the first web-based learning environment where you can take courses online and study the quality-management process. Quality Management professionals can take courses in ISO 9000, Auditing, Six Sigma, Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, State Quality Awards, W. Edwards Deming, Shingo, TQM and other related topics.

When it comes to the future, e-education experts and architects are pretty optimistic They see a world in which learning experiences will come in many new forms, including portable text, rich media, interactive simulations delivered via browsers, cell phones and other information appliances.

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