Universities say they are still struggling to set the right price points and enrollment limits for online courses. Since cyber-classrooms never run out of desks, there is a temptation to open up enrollment, bringing in a gush of tuition money.
Some proponents of online education believe that schools should tap the Internet's ability to cheaply reach large numbers of people. William A. Draves, president of the nonprofit group Learning Resources Network, said a single, energetic professor could handle an Internet class of thousands of students.
But such mass-marketing would destroy the value and exclusivity of the degree, said Blair Sheppard, senior associate dean for programs at Duke's Fuqua School.
"We could offer 60,000, 100,000 MBAs, but we want to be an incredibly desired product that far more people want than can get," Sheppard said. Two 90-member classes enrolled in the program last fall. "There's a huge temptation to get into the business where it's student-to-computer only."
While schools try to strike a balance between profits and prestige, many educators are scrambling to define their role in this digital domain.
In traditional course work, a professor creates and leads each class. But online, professors can easily be replaced once the course is built and posted. On the Net, no one knows who's really answering those e-mail questions.
At UNext, for instance, the much-touted Ivy League professors won't be teaching the classes. The professors lend their names and insights to UNext's staff, which then creates the electronic material and posts it on the Web.
The people who actually run the classes are UNext employees--people the company has hired to act as online mentors, grade homework and answer students' questions.
Some have teaching experience. Others, like Metros, do not.
"I've held a lot of supervisory roles in corporate finance," Metros said. "I bring real-world experience to the class."
Yet in the rush to grab talent, universities have found themselves competing against their own instructors.
This was the case for USC's O'Malia. He was hired in 1997 by University Access, the Los Angeles-based start-up, to develop online courses on entrepreneurship. O'Malia later became a minority shareholder in the company and a member of its board of directors.
O'Malia declined to say how much he was paid in cash and stock by University Access.
Industry sources say professors can get $5,000 to $10,000 merely for lending their names to Web programs. For instructors who actually help develop courses and lecture online, the paycheck can be $100,000 or more a year.
Although O'Malia was working for University Access, his employers at USC's Marshall School agreed to develop Internet material with a rival of University Access--Caliber Learning Network Inc. of Baltimore.
Critics at the school cite O'Malia's arrangement as a conflict of interest, but USC officials and O'Malia say both arrangements make the university more of a "catch" as an online partner.
"No one signs professors to exclusive contracts," said O'Malia, who claims that he has been asked to develop courses by 50 different for-profit, online education ventures. "But that's got to change someday."