Next summer, Northern Virginia Community College will become the first higher education institution in the Washington metropolitan area to offer degrees to students who don't ever have to set foot in a classroom.

Lessons will be learned not in lecture halls, but on cable and public television and over home computers, where students will be able to communicate directly with instructors and fellow students.

Should face-to-face contact with an instructor be necessary, it will occur over one of the college's two-way television/video camera systems at the campus nearest the student.

The "distance learning" option will be available to students registered at any of the college's five campuses.

In the past, distance learning has been used in rural areas, where great distances between home and campus prohibit traditional education, and for homebound mothers, the disabled and the incarcerated.

But increasingly, educators have come to recognize the usefulness of distance learning in urban areas such as Northern Virginia, where the program was developed to meet the needs of a new and rapidly growing segment of the undergraduate student population: those who work during the day and study part time at night but don't have time to fight through Northern Virginia traffic to get to a campus.

"Many are now what we call gridlocked urban students: professionals who have lots of responsibilities and just can't get from the office to a campus through Northern Virginia's traffic. That's a huge group for" NOVA, said Scott Roberts, a project officer with the Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting Project's "New Pathways to a Degree" program.

The Annenberg/CPB Project has given NOVA a $149,000 grant, one of seven being awarded to two- and four-year colleges across the United States. NOVA's new degree programs are being set up by its Extended Learning Institute, a group that works to make education accessible to people who are unable to journey to a campus.

The money will be spent to add new courses to the Extended Learning Institute's already extensive distance learning program. When the new courses are in place next summer, the college will be able to offer associate degrees in general studies and business, said Randal A. Lemke, director of the Extended Learning Institute.

According to Roberts, a typical evening for a student in the distance learning program (for example, a working woman who has a family and is studying for a business degree) would begin after work and dinner with a live lecture by a member of the business faculty broadcast on one of the college's cable programs.

If the woman had questions about the lecture, she would be able to call the professor, who is in the studio, by using a toll-free number appearing at the bottom of the TV screen. At the same time the woman was watching the program from her living room, other students across Northern Virginia would be doing the same.

Homework can be submitted by mail, sent by facsimile machine, or by a home computer with a modem. If a student does not have a computer and modem at home, facilities will be provided at the nearest campus. The college hopes to be able to lend computer equipment in the future.

Sitting at their terminals, students will have "complete access to not only the instructor but to any other student or any group of students," Roberts said. "We're finding that it's actually a more personal way to approach higher education."

As well as improving access to education for this new kind of student, the institute is "focusing on trying to provide collegial experiences, because a degree isn't just made up of a collection of courses," Lemke said. Over their computer screens and using voice-mail, students will have full access to student development activities, counseling and academic advice.