Online education has largely been treated like a stepchild in the world of higher education. It gets a bit of food and some old clothes, but not much attention in comparison with the university’s real children. A new online initiative begun by the University of Illinois, however, might give this Cinderella a more prominent place than it has had before.

Announced last May, the university’s Global Campus Initiative is a remarkable undertaking that should give online education more prominence. What’s more, the GCI is intended to be a profit-making venture and the startup capital will be raised from private sources. The tuition paid by students — and no breaks for Illinois residents — are expected to cover all costs. Implicitly, Illinois is saying, “We think we have an educational product that will pass the test of the market.” That’s interesting, since several high-profile online education ventures have failed.

Preparations for the GCI will take place in 2007 and the first classes are expected to be conducted in January 2008.

The GCI is primarily aimed at “non-traditional” learners. It will offer accredited baccalaureate, master’s and doctoral degrees as well as certificate and professional development programs, mostly aimed at business and technology fields. This will allow the GCI to tap into the fast-growing demand for corporate e-learning and other markets where convenience for the student is a key concern.

Is online education worth the effort? It has often been derided as “education lite” by people who maintain that true education requires students and teacher in the same room, face to face. The GCI Final Report argues, however, that such direct contact is neither necessary nor sufficient for learning. As the report says, “Online learning is more about connecting people than connecting computers. It is much more a community experience than a solitary routine.” GCI also contends that online courses can be “writing intensive,” which is something of a surprise to me, but if true, that would be a strong plus since many college students graduate with woeful writing skills these days.

A further testament to the educational value of online courses is the rapid and sustained growth they have experienced in the last decade. Online enrollments grew at a 23 percent annual rate between 2002 and 2005. It is hard to believe that so many people would be signing up for online classes if they didn’t think they were getting something of benefit.

Officials say the GCI will be “market-driven.” Not only will its offerings reflect the desires of students for serious and useful courses (accounting and information technology, yes; women’s studies and history of rock music, no), but its personnel policy will also be consistent with the need to operate in a businesslike fashion. Employment will be at will and no one will have tenure.

On one page of the GCI Report, a chart shows University of Illinois peer institutions with respect to their involvement in online education. Michigan State has 42 online degree and certification programs. Penn State has 50. The University of Texas has 22; Wisconsin 15. The University of North Carolina is on the chart, near the bottom, with zero programs.

That isn’t to say that UNC needs to replicate the GCI, which has a big head start and can enroll any student who meets the admission requirements. With online education, location doesn’t matter. If a citizen of North Carolina wants an online course or degree program offered by GCI, there is no reason to lament the fact that he isn’t enrolling in “our” university. The point, rather, is that UNC should be looking for new, original ways of using the Internet to connect students, wherever they might be, with good learning experiences.

George C. Leef is vice president for research at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.