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An image of an ivory tower

By Scott Bradner

The Internet facilitates a disconnection between image and reality.

An example of this can be seen in an article about the proliferation of
Internet-based diploma mills in the Dec. 19, 1997 edition of the
Chronicle of Higher Education.

It turns out that there is a growing number of Internet-based sites
offering rapid turnaround on advanced degrees via distance learning,
based on "life and work experience" rather than traditional classroom
work and research. While this is not a new problem - the FBI shut
down 39 self-described colleges between 1983 and 1986 - the Internet
is making it easier for these types of businesses to operate.

Part of the problem is that it is so easy to obtain misleading domain
names. There is no mechanism in place to check on whether a name
relates to any legitimate activity of the person or organization that is
requesting the domain name.

I may be mistaken in the specific case, but the person in Reykjavik,
Iceland who owns the domain name seems well
positioned to offer services in a way that just might be confused with
services offered by a well-known U.S. university. Hundreds of
examples exist of domain names that seem purposely designed to be

Another part of the problem is that the Internet is too international.
Two problems stem from this: First, there is no way for the typical
user to know whether the actual location of an Internet site is in, say,
Pittsburgh or Reykjavik.

Second, these sites are not under any single legal jurisdiction. The
FBI, for instance, probably has little clout in Reykjavik.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that true distance learning
programs are being developed and many of them will be delivered
over the Internet. While distance learning is a good thing, the fact that
so many more organizations will be entering the field will make it
harder to identify the charlatans.

Some are easy to spot: One offered a degree in business
administration for $2,000 along with a summary of a $25 textbook.
But even if the lack of real work is clear to those obtaining degrees
through this type of process, it can be quite hard for the employment
office at your company to keep track of which organizations offer
meaningful educational experiences and should be taken seriously
when evaluating candidates.

Such issues could cast a shadow over the entire distance learning
business and hurt the legitimate as well as the illegitimate institutions
and their students.

The distance learning market points out yet another example of how
tricky it is to establish credentials over the Internet. Understanding
how genuine med-ical or investment advice, merchandise offers and
educational opportunities are when they come packaged in
well-written e-mail or a polished Web site is already a hard thing to
do. It is going to get more difficult as those who would separate a
fool from his money get better at Web design.

Disclaimer: Harvard is exploring the distance learning biz and has had
problems with copycat domain names, but the above are my own