“60 Minutes” on Online Education – Reflections on a Story from 2001

Cover of the transcript. shows the 60 minutes logo and the name of the segment (Online U)
Cover of the 60 Minutes transcript

So, how did the mass media view online education two decades ago? On February 18, 2001, the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes ran the segment “Online U,” which discussed the emergence of online offerings at the University of Phoenix and Duke University. Also interviewed were critics of these innovations and those challenging higher education to do more to change.

After watching it back in 2001, I obtained a transcript. And I kept it all this time.

This post quotes those interviewed. I also reflect on the areas on which we have made great advances and those in which the criticisms remain the same or are, sometimes rightfully, now much louder.

I will comment on the quotes in the 60 Minutes interviews. Of course, I am the first to admit that it is easier to judge those statements given the insights of history. But, sometimes, by looking at the past, we can appreciate how far we have come and what unforeseen wonders the future might hold.

Life in 2001

For context, I offer some history lessons from February twenty years ago…

image says "2001"
  • A president was serving his first month in office after an election disputed by quite a few people.
  • Rookie Tom Brady just completed a total of one pass in his rookie year. In 2002, he would win his first Super Bowl as the youngest quarterback to do so (Whatever happened to him?).
  • Western Governors University (WGU) had been open for enrollment for only two years and had a fraction of the students it now has.
  • The music-sharing app Napster lost a federal appeals court judgement. It closed that summer.
  • WebCT was a big provider of Learning Management System software for online courses. In February 2006, it is acquired by Blackboard.
  • The launch of a social media platform called “The Facebook” was still three years away in February 2004 (Disagreements with crazy uncles happened mostly in-person and at Thanksgiving).

The fact that hits me the most from the 60 Minutes segment is that the press was just discovering that distance education even existed. Meanwhile, WCET had been around for twelve years serving member colleges who provided, what else but, online and distance education.

What Caught Their Attention about Online Education?

The answer is money.

Long-time “60 Minutes” reporter Leslie Stahl begins the segment this way: “Almost every day, another dot-com company goes bust…But there’s one area of Internet business that shows no sign of slowing down: e-education. Entrepreneurs are spending millions to create for-profit universities of the Internet. And the smart money is betting that by the time your middle-schoolers go off to college, they may not really go anywhere. Their campus may be your basement, their computer their classroom.”

While this was certainly true, I must issue a heavy sigh. While for-profit institutions certainly benefited from online education, some critics still think that online education is synonymous with for-profit motives. With the exception of an expensive Duke University program, there is no hint in this segment that public or independent, non-profit institutions are involved in online learning.

It is also amusing to reflect that in 2020 the vast majority of middle-schooler and the university students would be in that basement taking online courses.

Arthur Levin of Teachers College at Columbia University and a noted scholar and critic of teaching practices opines:
“There’s a sense that here’s an industry worth maybe $300 billion which people believe is low in productivity, high in cost, bad in management, doesn’t use technologies. One entrepreneur told me…’We’re going to each your lunch.’”

Levin goes on to paraphrase what he believes students were wanting:
“’I want great service. Give me convenience classes 24 hours a day. In-class parking wouldn’t be bad, high quality instruction and low cost. And I don’t want to pay for anything I’m not using.’ They’re prime candidates for instruction in the office or at home.”

These sentiments are true today for many adult students and leads to more observations about the influx of adult learners.

A Changing and Growing Student Population

Levin offered this insight of the changes and misconceptions in the students being served by higher education, even back in 2001:
“The image of the college student is somebody that’s somewhere between 18 and 22 who attends college full-time and lives on a campus…That person now makes up 16 percent of the college population. The rest…are older, part-time, working.”

To represent the changing demographic, Vicki Esposito is featured throughout the segment. She is a student attending the online version of the University of Phoenix. As a 32-year-old mother working in a full-time job on Wall Street and living on Staten Island, Stahl asks Esposito when she does her college work. Her response is one that is familiar to us: “when they go to bed.” This is followed by joint reflections that this leaves little time in the day for sleep.

overhead photo of a woman working on a laptop with a book next to her
Photo by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels.com

Stahl follows-up with an observation on changing student needs and predilections:
“So many students like that idea that, believe it or not, Phoenix, which is fully accredited, has become the largest private university in America.”

While this statement seemingly implied that the University is fully online, that was certainly not the case. Many major cities had University of Phoenix locations for in-person instruction situated near a major interstate highway.

An unidentified woman student in Duke University’s Online MBA underscores the motives of the adult learner by saying:
“It’s allowing me to push forward in my career at the same time while I’m getting my degree.”

These sentiments are just as fresh today. Many students find that online education fits into their life needs. It was also attractive for Esposito as the $4,000 price per online course was paid by her employer.

In subsequent years, online learning would grow to additional populations. K-12 students in dual credit courses often do so online. The use of digital educational technologies has expanded through many on-campus or blended college courses.

Certainly, Harvard, Yale, and Stanford Would Never Go Online

Photo of the transcript. Reads CBS News Feb. 18, 2001. (footage of students working at computers, close up of university of phoenix logo) Lesley Stahl: (Voiceover) What are all these...In fact, the largest private university in the United states (text cut off).
Photo of the transcript

Commenting on the future of the internet and online learning, John Chambers, the CEO or Cisco Systems offered this opinion about universities: “If they don’t change, the students aren’t going to be there.”

Stahl follows up: “Are you saying that if a Harvard or a Yale or a Stanford doesn’t get—doesn’t start teaching online, that they won’t exist in 20 years?”

Chambers: “If they don’t change, you will get left behind.. And it isn’t just teaching online.”

Stahl: “Even Harvard, Yale, Stanford, all of them?”

Chambers: “Even Harvard, Yale, Stanford.”

Of course, all the predictions of major universities going away if they do not go online were so much hyperbole. Before the pandemic occurred, we witnessed many institutions experiencing economic difficulties, with some forced to close. Even institutions traditionally focused on their on-campus experience added online options to boost the bottom line.

A mere decade after this interview, professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng began offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) at Stanford. A year later they started Coursera, which still offers courses from Stanford on their platform. For those of us with years of experience in distance and online education, it was enlightening that these newbies had “discovered” online instruction, online discussions, and online testing. Subsequently, Coursera has found its lane in offering courses and in being an Online Program Management (OPM) service for institutions.

Back to 2001 and to provide another opinion, Robert Berdahl, Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley said of Chambers’ urging universities to go online: “He’s in the Internet business; I’m in the education business.” And went on: “How do we make certain that the students are the same quality that we have on campus?”

In 2012, MIT and Harvard started their own MOOC platform, called EdX. This graphic is taken from the EdX “About Us” page and speaks to where the Berkeley campus is today on online learning:

logos for MIT Harvard Berkeley University of TX system Boston University and University System of Maryland

Apparently, the University of California at Berkeley has found a way to find quality students.

I still recall listening to the stream of the press conference announcing EdX, which was created by MIT and Harvard. A reporter asked if the EdX team had reached out to learn from other institutions offering online learning. The response was that they did not see a need to talk to for-profit institutions. This still galls me as it ignored the fact that most online learning was provided by public and private, non-profit institutions. And regardless of tax structure, it might be helpful for a research university to learn from those who had gone before. EdX has been successful with its open learning platform and offering courses from numerous institutions to students throughout the world.

Teaching, Interaction, and That “Quality” Question

As is still true now, those who have not experienced an online course have grave questions about quality and how the in-person experience can be replicated. Berdahl, the University of California at Berkeley Chancellor stated: “I think that is the core issue. How do we make certain that a degree is truly worth a degree and make certain that—that—that we don’t have the equivalent of diploma mills on the Internet? I don’t think chat rooms and virtual discussions are the—the functional equivalent of being in a classroom.”

In the best quote of the segment, Carole Fungaroli, a faculty person at Georgetown University said: “Your education is like sex on the Internet. You can get it online, but it’s better in person.”

Stahl asked about what is lost in the interaction in an online course. Fungaroli says: “There is some sort of marvelous energy that gets going between me and a student when I know that the student is really catching on. I can tell. I—I can read eyes…. Not only do I not know that would happen with someone online, I don’t know how I’d care. And caring I think, is a lot of it. How do you care about someone you’ve never met or you don’t know?”

Stahl returns to Esposito for the student perspective on connecting with others in her class, asking: “Do you know who the other people in the class are?”

Esposito replies: “Yeah, you do. In a traditional school, I may never know the person sitting next to me. There would be no reason to even speak to them. Online, the first thing you do is send a bio when you go into your class…introducing yourself and who you are and what you do. So, you get to know the people and—learn about them.”

Unfortunately, Stahl knocks down that student experience: “If you can call typing messages back and forth getting to know someone.”

Stahl asks Esposito as a student: “Do you worry that people will view this degree as a lesser degree because it was online?”

She replies: “In the beginning, yes, I was skeptical; I wasn’t sure. But it’s proven to me that it’s—it’s accomplishing the same thing. Once I actually get that degree in my hand, you’re not going to know any different.”

Faculty Control and “Rock Star” Faculty

In the segment there is a very quick reference to the MBA program at Duke University using what are called “software engineers” (presumably instructional designers) to work with the “content experts” (faculty) in creating a quality course. Concern is raised about faculty having to share control of the course.

concert venue with crowd
Photo by ActionVance on Unsplash

As was common back in those day, the myth of the star faculty person was introduced. Commenting on what Duke University was doing, Columbia College’s Levin said: “I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen. And what they’re going to do is say, ‘Professor Jones, have I got a deal for you. I got you a book contract with Random House. I got you a show on PBS. You’re going to do one of the for-profit online courses. I got you three product endorsements and a consulting contract with Russia, and they’re paying up front. And for that, I can give you $5 million’…These guys are going to be like rock stars.”

Twenty years later, the examples of celebrity faculty are extremely rare and they certainly are not making $5 million. What was not foreseen was the exact opposite problem taking hold. In both in-person and online courses, the use of contingent (adjunct) faculty at a very low rate of pay has exploded. Instead of a few faculty becoming rich, many faculty are paid wages that are below the cost of living. Again, that is not a problem that is restricted to the online environment, but we should strive to do better.

The Digital Divide

Stahl poses this problem to Fungaroli as a faculty person: “…one of the big topics is whether the Internet will create a have and have-not divide.”

Fungaroli replies: “As long as there are going to be parents with deep pockets there are going to be—there’s going to be in-person education. I just don’t want to see it for the elite. I want to see it for a more democratic representation.”

As someone from a lower, middle class faculty of first-generation colleges students, I had to choke a bit at this one. An in-person education at Georgetown University was not within my financial grasp. So, the “elite” argument falls a bit short with me.

On the other hand, the recent experience with the pandemic shows that those with the fewest financial resources were most severely affected by the lack of technology and internet access. The digital divide was made deeper for non-elite students.

Online Education Was Still Nascent with a Bright Future (From a 2001 Point of View)

In 2001, the University of Phoenix content was all reading. The fact that YouTube would not launch until 2005 reminds us that videos were rare. I recall the difficulties of struggling with non-compatible video formats. Some did offer videos, which Stahl comments (accurately) as that “herky-jerky professor in a box.”

In talking about the online course experience in 2001, Cisco CEO Chambers says: “The applications are very rudimentary. They are not very effective…It would be very kind to say it’s at stage one. I’d say we’re in the very first pitch of the first game.”

Stahl: “You can see the potential in a few courses now…animation, interactivity. But just wait.”

Chambers: “Ten to 15 years down the line, what we could have is holograms of other people sitting in your living room with you, and here’s the professor sitting right in front of you.”

Well…we are still working on holograms, but there have been great advances in discussion tools, videos, simulations, and other instructional tools.

In Conclusion

I hope that you enjoyed this trip down memory lane. As happens with the national press, there is the view that higher education is defined by the elite colleges. Meanwhile, for-profit institutions are seen as a new interloper. Absent from this discussion is the vast majority of institutions outside these two categories. I know that they have less than 20 minutes for a story, but there were numerous institutions with experience in online education at the time from the public and private, non-profit institution sectors.

The old adage “the more things change; the more things stay the same” struck me as I read the interview.

We have made great progress in many areas. Some criticisms remain, both fairly and not. Many challenges stay lay in ahead of us.


But wait, there’s more!

I was able to locate and contact Vicki Esposito, the student interviewed for the 60-minute story. We asked her a few questions and she kindly sent us her answers. Thank you, Vicki, for walking down memory lane with us!

How did the find you? It was pretty interesting putting the weight of all adult students on your shoulders.

Someone on Leslie Stahl’s team called me directly, or perhaps she emailed me. I think they received my information from University of Phoenix. I was kind of young back then with three little kids at home, so I don’t think I even thought of how I was a voice for other adult students.

Looks like you graduated from the University of Phoenix, which you were interviewed about. How was that online experience? How did it prepare you for future work?

So, the online experience was interesting but a few things to keep in mind: First I was in IT, so I was comfortable with the technology. Second this was 20 years ago so we didn’t have Wi-Fi or even cable. When I think back it’s almost scary to think the technology was even able to handle this. Phoenix was very diligent on how this worked so as long as you could keep yourself working within their structure it was fine but that did take some getting used to. Of course, getting a degree prepares you in many different ways but as an adult and working full-time I think it was the structure and deadlines that I had to meet. Of course, each individual course provides knowledge that you use at different times in your career but being able to meet deadlines at the time stood out for me.

I know that they interviewed you for quite a while, but only snippets make it into a story. Is there anything that you said that got cut or you wish that the viewers would have known?

Yes, they didn’t use all of the interview. I distinctly remember one particular question that was cut, which surprised me because I loved the answer although I don’t think Leslie like it. I think she wasn’t in agreement with online schooling which is why this particular question/answer was cut. Again, keep this in perspective as it was 20 years ago, and it wasn’t a pandemic. She asked about the need for social interaction and the importance of it. My response was basically that I had plenty of social interaction especially since I had young children who were involved in their own schools and after-school activities, so I didn’t feel the need for specific social interactions. In this pandemic world the social interaction is missing because students of any age are no longer able to have those interactions. 

 I hope I answered your questions. 20 years later I can tell you that the online experience definitely made me a better technologist as you weren’t just sitting in a classroom. The structure University of Phoenix had required you to “raise your hand” that’s what I called it, several times a week. In a traditional classroom, I could have just sat in the background and never said a word.


Russ Poulin
Executive Director, WCET
rpoulin@wiche.edu    @russpoulin

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My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Assistant Director of Communications and Community for WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

One thought on ““60 Minutes” on Online Education – Reflections on a Story from 2001

  1. I love this post. Great job Russ.
    I was just starting in Online Learning Administration in Minnesota in 2001. I remember when this segment aired on 60 Minutes. I was just starting to live with and deal with the threat of U Phx “eating our lunch” back then. In fact, U Phx approached me and my President to try to work out a partnership between the two orgs (maybe 2004). I was skeptical of their motives and we never worked together. They did try to lure me with an employment offer more than once. Glad I didn’t bite.

    Love that you thought to ask her about what they didn’t air. What CBS cut about the social interaction piece was so important. Just didn’t add to the doom and gloom of their story, I guess.
    AA++ Russ.

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