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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 disconnection can be seen in an article about the proliferation of Internet-based diploma mills in the December 19th edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

It turns out that there are 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 since there is no checking to see that the 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 CarnigieMellon.Com, seems well positioned to offer services in a way that just might be confused with services offered by a well known US University. Hundreds of examples exist of domain names that seem to be purposely designed to be misleading.

Another part of the problem is that the Internet is too international. Two problems stem from this feature; First, there is no way for the normal user to know the actual location of an Internet site, it could be in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA or Reykjavik, Iceland. Second, these sites are not under any single legal jurisdiction, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation may not have much clout in Reykjavik.

But perhaps the biggest problem is that legitimate distance learning is starting to be developed and much of it will be delivered over the Internet. It is not a problem that distance learning is developing, in fact it is a good thing, but since more organizations will be in the business it will become harder to identity the charlatans. Some are easy to spot: one offered a degree in business administration for $2000 and 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 considered when evaluating candidates. This could cast a shadow over the entire distance learning business and hurt the legitimate as well as the illegitimate institutions and their students.

This is yet another example of the problem of establishing credentials over the Internet. Understanding the level of legitimacy of medical or investment advice, merchandise offers, and educational opportunities when they come packaged in well written email or a polished web site is already a hard thing to do. It is going to continue to get harder 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 opinions