It sounds like the answer to a lazy student's prayer.

While everybody else rushes off to campus to catch an early class, you simply sit up in bed, flick on the TV set and start jotting notes as the lesson unfolds in living color at your feet.

With the fall semester approaching, hundreds of Washington-area students seeking a college degree will be signing up for credit courses offered on television. The video instruction is being presented in connection with a number of colleges and other educational institutions in the District of Columbia and the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

In the past year, 555 colleges throughout the country offered courses over 227 Public Broadcasting Service stations to some 50,000 students, according to PBS statistics. Among the upcoming presentations for the fall: personal finance, the American short story, an introduction to business and issues in criminal justice and child abuse.

Though it may sound like the easy way to work for a degree, the truth is, say local college educators involved in "telecourse" programs, it takes a highly motivated student to successfully complete a 30-lesson TV course that may require writing papers and passing a stiff exam.

To study on one's own "calls for an individual to have good learning skills," says Jacques DuBois, director of special academic areas for Prince George's Community College. "We want to be sure of attracting the right students."

Nevertheless, the courses are popular with many students because of their convenience. Among the most-frequent participants:

* Individuals working at a full-time job, who can catch a lesson on their noon hours, or in the evening or on weekends at home--whatever fits in with their schedule.

Parents who must remain at home to care for a child but can squeeze in viewing and study time while the youngster naps.

* Students already carrying an on-campus course load who want to get a degree faster by taking an extra class on weekends.

* Older students who lack confidence in their ability to compete in the classroom. They can test their scholarship in the privacy of their home before venturing onto campus.

* The infirm, the handicapped or those who simply do not have the means to get to a distant campus on a regular basis.

Another group, the incarcerated, may be added to that list. The University of the District of Columbia is looking into the possibility of making telecourses available to inmates at Washington's Lorton detention facility.

At Prince George's, where televised courses have been offered since 1976, women comprise about 65 percent of enrollees, many of them returning to the academic world after years of raising children. The students, men and women, generally are older, with the largest percentage between 21 and 35. Almost 60 percent are fully employed. About 300 students sign up for the five or six courses the college schedules annually.

With heavy family and job obligations, many students find it difficult to show up on campus for more than one or two courses a semester. At that rate, says DuBois, it might take them "forever" to earn a bachelor's degree unless they could take additional classes at home. For one thing, they save on driving time to the college.

Contrary to popular belief, say educators, the video lessons are anything but simplified snap courses that shortchange students. To be accredited by a participating college, each must meet the institution's academic standards. At UDC, for example, "All the courses must be approved by the academic departments," says Randolph Scott, UDC's associate dean for the division of continuing education.

Each offering institution determines the number of credits granted for a particular course and the amount of outside reading and papers required (courses generally are supplemented with a text and study guide). Many colleges require a pre-course orientation session on campus. Some offer on-campus seminars in conjunction with the televised lessons, which may be voluntary or required.

Off-campus students are given the name of an instructor they may contact by phone or in person. Written assignments help the instructor spot students having difficulty with the work.

The reading material, not the televised lesson, is considered the real basis of the course, says DuBois. "The TV replaces the classroom lecture. We view it as a pacer. It engages the student. In independent study, you can get behind by not doing anything for a couple of weeks."

In years past, televised courses frequently consisted solely of a professor standing in front of a blackboard duplicating an on-campus lecture. But that has changed. Explains Scott:

"Blackboard lectures are great, but you really learn by experiencing. TV has the ability to take you right there. It can bring in so many things that an instructor in front of the class can't do. It can show you a shot of formations at the bottom of the sea for geography, or Pike's Peak in Colorado."

Most students who pay the registration fee complete the televised classes. At UDC, the dropout rate tends to be less than for on-campus students. And the video scholars achieve grades that are on a par with those in the regular classroom, says Scott, "not higher or lower."

For a number of years, telecourses have been broadcast over Channel 22 for Maryland students enrolled at Prince George's, Montgomery and Howard community colleges as well as the University of Maryland's Open University. In Northern Virginia, Channel 53 televises courses in conjunction with the Extended Learning Institute of Northern Virginia Community College.

With the recent creation of PBS' Adult Learning Service to distribute telecourses, Channel 26 (WETA) began last semester to program a schedule of video instruction. This fall, it will offer five courses through one or more of these seven institutions: University of the District of Columbia, Montgomery College, Prince George's Community College, Extended Learning Institute of Northern Virginia Community College, Open University of the University of Maryland, Marymount College of Virginia and Anne Arundel Community College.

At the moment, most telecourses are the basic introductory classes required of degree-seeking students in their freshmen and sophomore years. At Montgomery College, a student currently can earn 45 degrees toward a two-year degree in its College of the Air program. Ultimately, though, some educators see the possibility of earning a bachelor's degree entirely by television. To DuBois, it may become a matter of necessity:

As the nation develops a highly educated population of lifelong learners, the point could be reached where "our campuses couldn't handle them all."

Viewers don't have to sign up to benefit from the courses. Many people, it seems, are watching on their own without taking the necessary steps to earn academic credit. That became evident, says DuBois, when bookstores reported selling more texts than the number of students enrolled.