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Online university growing in popularity and reach

WGU provides 24/7 access to learning nearly anywhere

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Deseret Morning News graphic

When Holly Shaver learned she was going to Iraq with the Air Force, she didn't want her education to get left behind.

Living on a secluded military base near Baghdad left Shaver few options for continuing her elementary-education degree until she stumbled upon a Utah-based Internet university. Now the 23-year-old air transportation journeyman has only three more semesters before she completes her degree at Western Governors University, and she is squeezing in study time whenever she can.

"At any moment they can say, 'You're leaving, let's go.' I need something that I can take with me," she said. "I don't have to drop it and try to start over."

Shaver is one of many students learning that classrooms are no longer four-walled, desk-filled rooms. Instead, many students and teachers are interacting in the virtual world and finding that a computer can open up 24-hour access to learning on a military base in Iraq, a remote village in Alaska or even a fishing boat.

Utah-based Western Governors University is attracting students from across the nation and the globe. Since its inception in 1999, the school's following has grown to highs such as 821 students in Texas. More than 70 students outside of the United States also log on to WGU courses.

"We do serve people who are both in far flung parts of the world as well as individuals who might be living in a remote county or an Indian reservation that just doesn't have access for other reasons," said Patrick Partridge, vice president of marketing for WGU.

For Theresa Tall, access meant pursuing an elementary-education degree while accompanying her husband to Okinawa, Japan. Her husband served in the Marine Corps, and Tall was busy raising her two daughters. While she said that doing her studies online at her own pace takes discipline, it also allows her to do work while her children are in school and on weekends.

"I can be at home when my children need me, and I have been able to have a job to bring in extra income," she said.

The virtual classroom also means teachers can grade papers, post notes and conduct video lectures from vacation spots and business trips. At the University of Phoenix, spokeswoman Jeri Cartwright said some teachers have checked student papers while boating on Lake Mohave, on the border between Arizona and Nevada.

One native Salt Lake teacher at the University of Phoenix has taught from Hong Kong and Malaysia, and even graded papers while on her honeymoon. But Beverly Hyatt's favorite Salt Lake spot is the Cocoa Cafe on 900 South.

"Some of the more rustic places were Internet cafes in neighborhoods in Cambodia and a remote highland town in Guatemala where they didn't have TV or indoor plumbing, but did have a satellite to connect to the Internet," Hyatt said.

Traditional institutions such as the University of Utah have also experienced a proliferation of online learning. The U. offers 100 courses to about 3,000 students each semester. Around the state, Utah's traditional colleges and universities offer nearly 2,000 online courses.

Chuck Wight, assistant vice president for academic affairs at the U., added that most of the U.'s online learners live in Utah and just need a little added flexibility in their schedules. A handful of students each semester do join the classes from military bases.

Partridge attributes the growing popularity of online learning to that added flexibility. At WGU, he said, once the school gets a little name recognition in a state, the enrollment tends to surge.

"The more broadly it reaches out into the public sphere, the more people's awareness becomes and following is the level of comfort," he said.

E-mail: estewart@desnews.com