As online courses have entered the mainstream of higher education, they have been most closely associated with serving older, nontraditional students who can not travel to colleges because of jobs and family. But the same technologies of "distance learning" are now finding their way onto brick-and-mortar campuses, especially public institutions hit hard by declining state funds.

For example, the University of Florida offers dozens of popular courses in psychology, statistics, biology and other fields primarily online. Students on this scenic campus of stately oaks rarely meet classmates in these courses.

This may delight undergraduates who do not have to change out of pajamas to "attend" class. But it also raises questions that go to the core of a college's mission: Is it possible to learn as much when your professor is a mass of pixels whom you never meet? How much of a student's education and growth — academic and personal — depends on face-to-face contact with instructors and fellow students?

Across the country, online education is exploding: 4.6 million students took a college-level online course during fall 2008, up 17 percent from a year earlier, according to the Sloan Survey of Online Learning. A large majority — about three million — were simultaneously enrolled in face-to-face courses, belying the popular notion that most online students live far from campuses, said Jeff Seaman, co-director of the survey. Many are in community colleges, he said.

Source: New York Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/05/us/05college.html?_r=2