Florida State University couldn’t muster up the usual crowd of players at the Dec. 31 Music City Bowl game against Kentucky. Key players watched their team struggle and then lose to their opponents as they sat on the sidelines, unable to join in. Perhaps the team would have done better than 35-28 if over 20 of its players hadn’t been caught cheating in their online class.

Online courses, from major universities to online institutions, offer education to a broader audience than ever before, but with these new opportunities come challenges associated with the lack of a classroom.

Some of the most famous names in online education are the University of Phoenix, DeVry University and ITT Technical Institute. Each acquired online divisions or converted their entire curriculum to online courses to meet the needs of their clientele – typically high school educated and working their way through school but unable to attend a major university.

Since, prestigious universities have jumped on the bandwagon, utilizing the vehicle of the Information Age to cast a broader net and sweep up the best and the brightest without thought to geographic location.

Bruce Bikle, a professor of public administration and criminal justice at California State University at Sacramento, says that though the Internet has facilitated it, distance education is nothing new and is still done for the same reasons – to accommodate the unusual student.

“We’ve been doing long distance education for a hundred years,” he says. “Most of [the usual models of education] are for 18-year olds graduating from high school going to college. What do you do with the 22-year old out of the army with wife or husband and child?”

Sac State has actually put its entire upper-division criminal justice program online because many of the graduate students interested in the program are less than conventional.

“This is how they do it,” Bikle says. “It beats coming into campus every day. My classic example is what do you do for the fireman, the corrections officers, the highway patrolman who needs to further their education?”

To meet the needs of those populations, for whom coming to campus on a daily or weekly basis is untenable, there are only a few basic requirements: a decent Internet connection and the maturity and drive to keep up with school work when a professor can’t literally breathe down your neck.

If those two conditions are met, the bonus for the students can be the ability to access lectures, course materials and even the professor (via e-mail) quickly and easily.

“You can do a program for motivated students that is totally online because the technology allows us to put lectures on streaming the same way you watch streaming video,” Bikle says. “It’s basically YouTube academics.”

The online setting can actually improve some aspects of the class such as group discussions that many teachers in live settings have to motivate by working participation into a student’s grade. Online, students have the time to think out their answers and articulate them in a less-immediate environment.

However, though online classes can be made to work, nothing substitutes for the real thing.

“The ideal situation is still probably what the literature tells us: really good teachers in small classrooms with students who can put the time and energy in,” Bikle says.

This is partly for the same reason that those Florida State athletes had so much trouble – if you’re not one of Bikle’s “motivated students,” online courses are easy to fall behind in and, in that case, easy to cheat on.

It’s also widely believed amongst students that online courses are easier than regular ones, and they attract students who just need a few extra credits or a good grade to boost their GPA.

Travis Fondren, a senior majoring in creative writing at the University of Southern California, says that his time in online classes managed to fulfill his requirements without giving him much of a challenge.

“When I have to go to a class and attend lecture, it forces me to at least hear the material and the stuff we’re talking about, but when it’s online, and I’m never held accountable to do the reading or any more work than I really have to,” he relays, “I only have to expose myself to class material as much as I really want to.”

Most classes at major universities are still taught on a face to face basis, but many are beginning to incorporate online components, particularly Blackboard, an online interface where teachers can post documents for students to download, host group discussions and put up grades, among other features.