Could the college classroom be headed for cyberspace? The question is not quite as sci-fi as it seems. In a trend little noticed outside the academic world, universities in the United States are in the middle of a virtual land rush: competing to see who can stake out the strongest claim in the electronic frontier of the World Wide Web. Learning, it seems, is set to follow work, shopping, letter writing and sex as something we do by staring at a screen and then typing.

Academic programs offered through the Internet are multiplying so quickly that it's hard to keep track, but one database lists 10,000 accredited courses and for-credit examinations offered online. InterEd, an Arizona-based research firm, estimates there will be 3 million students taking college courses online by next year. Schools participating range from prestigious institutions such as Penn State and UCLA to newly created virtual universities, such as Western Governors University, which, but for administrative offices, exists only in the digital netherworld.

It's online, it's new, and these days in the United States--one country under Microsoft--that is enough for some people to see it as the future. But beneath the hype lies a set of questionable assumptions driven as much by greed as by any desire to improve learning. These assumptions represent a great simplification of what really constitutes getting an education and yet another misguided attempt to reduce a human experience to a simulation of its former self. You cannot replace the old-fashioned college campus with bits and bytes, and we shall make a mistake if we try.

Still, some prophets of the Information Age are already declaring the old-fashioned classroom--the one you have to leave your home and go to--as outdated as carbon paper and the mimeograph machine. Peter Drucker, the corporate management guru and futurist, has summed up the view bluntly: "Universities won't survive. The future is outside the traditional campus."trusting

As touted by enthusiasts, the virtues of the virtual classroom are those commonly attached to everything on the Web: Online education is said to be more convenient, more interactive, more attuned to today's technologically fluent young and, of course, it's quicker and more efficient. (The Web browser never crashes in technogeek utopia.)

This kind of enthusiasm reflects faith in technology more than it does any real assessment of the educational opportunities out there on the Web. More sober proponents of online education admit its quality varies widely. In some classes, professors have simply dumped their lectures into computer memory. Students download and read, and ask some questions by e-mail. Others are more elaborate, including interactive CDs and electronic chat rooms, with students and teacher online for regularly scheduled sessions. Some online classes include videos that are downloaded or mailed. Some even require students to visit the campus at the beginning, to meet other students and their professor. Others require students to show up in classrooms to take tests.

In general, they are all part of a trend in electronic education that started long before personal computers, first with classes broadcast on television, proceeding to classes that included cameras and microphones in different locales so students could be seen and ask questions. The whole business goes by one of the innocuous, bled-free-of-meaning phrases that educators are so fond of: "distance learning."

Distance learning certainly has its value. As someone who grew up in North Dakota and lived for a time in Wyoming, I would never discount the importance of technology that allows people to overcome geographic isolation. There are people in the rural West with no institution of higher learning within a three-hour drive. There are also many prospective students across the country whose work schedules make it impossible for them to attend regular classes, but who deserve a chance at further education. Distance learning can provide a genuine opportunity for those who simply cannot make it to a university.

But the enthusiasm for online education, driven as much by the profit motive as by altruism, goes much further. Universities and government are putting money and effort into setting up a system of virtual education to rival, and in part supersede, the traditional system. Like the stampede online by business, this is being propelled by a fear of being left behind--even though nobody really knows where we're headed.

It is also being driven by the pot of gold so many people believe lies at the end of the Web. "The real motive here is to make money; it's not about education," says David Noble, a history professor at York University in Toronto who has emerged as one of the leading critics of online learning. It is potential gold for corporations including Microsoft, America Online, Sun Microsystems, AT&T and other information heavyweights eagerly partnering with universities to promote online learning. They know a market when they see it. Although institutions of higher learning are perceived as being strapped for funding, they actually spend more than $200 billion a year, according to an analysis by professor Christopher Oberg, a visiting scholar at Claremont Graduate University in California. The rush online promises to channel much more of that money to software and computer hardware companies.

Universities also see a pot of gold. First, online education promises an influx of donations from corporate sponsors eager to get the system set up. Second, it holds out the hope of adding students. Down the road, it offers the possibility of efficiencies of scale and automation; in other words, fewer faculty members. Students could complete their studies by working with a series of computer programs designed to impart and test knowledge. A professor's lectures could be recorded on CD or video and sold for profit each year.

All this could be closer than it seems. UCLA, to cite one example, is involved in a controversial partnership with Online Learning.net, a private corporate entity that would have the right to resell packaged educational material for a profit. The University of California at Berkeley is working with America Online. Many other universities have taken on corporate partners as they head online.

What is so bad about all of this, a technophile might ask? If Microsoft and America Online can make a bundle by expanding educational opportunity, more power to them. If hard-pressed university administrators can find a way to add students and bring down costs, who should object?

Noble draws a comparison between today's infatuation with online education and the fascination with correspondence courses that swept the educational world in the first half of this century. Institutions including Columbia University, Berkeley and the University of Chicago lent their names to correspondence programs touted much the same way online learning is today: anti-elitist, a chance for the working man or woman to get an education.

The problem, Noble says, was that even the better programs had to compete with "cheaper, matchbook operations," and so had to cut costs. They ended up paying readers, often graduate students, on a piece-rate basis: 20 to 30 cents a paper. "The economics of correspondence learning was to put all your money into hype and promotion," says Noble. "You get a high rate of sign up. Students pay tuition up front, and the instructors are paid on the piece rate."

It was education combining the methods of the huckster and the sweatshop. Students got wise first. Noble says dropout rates approached 90 percent. Then many of the best universities got wise, removing themselves from the business. Given the ever more tangled interdependence between corporate America and universities, and the nonstop euphoria about the Net, such a decision is difficult to imagine today. Nonetheless, we owe it to ourselves to pause and ask whether online learning is really better for us.

When it comes to measuring value, the heart of the debate is really between very different views of education. One sees education primarily as the transferring of information--discrete packets of facts and theory and practice. In this view, the university is essentially a kind of giant Pez dispenser of knowledge.

This side sees no reason why this process cannot move smoothly into the online world. It surely includes many administrators whose subliminal desire is to replace those troublesome faculty members with machines--any machines--and corporate honchos who realize there are billions to be made in building the dispenser and owning the rights to the goodies it dispenses. But this side also includes many well-intentioned educators who sincerely believe that e-mail, chat rooms, videos and interactive programming are excellent ways to transfer information, and perhaps even reach a broader array of students than ever before.

On the other side of the debate are those who view education as something far more complicated, who view it, perhaps romantically, as a mutual exploration--and I have to admit that I find myself mostly in this camp. This group sees learning as an irreducibly human process. It depends not just on the text--the body of information at the heart of the course--but on a dialogue between teacher and students, student and student, that can turn on a look in someone's eye, a moment of creative whimsy. It depends also on a physical environment that encourages and nurtures all of this. Something called a university.

Proponents of online learning point to studies, many funded by supporters of online education, that indicate it can allow more interaction. Noble and others dispute these findings. But that debate misses the point. Online learning is no substitute for human interaction.

Andrew Feenberg, a professor at the University of San Diego, has taught classes offered online and is sympathetic to the possibilities of such learning. Yet in a paper examining the pros and cons he asks finally, "What kind of [computer] network would make it possible to bump into someone on the way to class and make a new friend, to carry on a heated discussion after the end of the hour, to catch the professor's eye and exchange an instantaneous glance in which boredom or alertness is tacitly expressed?" All these things, too, are part of an education. They are part of a way of learning that has given us what we call our civilization, which is much more than the sum of its data. They are an inescapably human experience.

Despite the brave new age of the Internet, it would be wise to remember that we remain, first of all, students of human nature. The classroom and the university are still the best places to engage in the exploration of that nature. We might save a little of our euphoria and more of our money for this hopelessly low-tech fashion of learning: person to person.

Reed Karaim, a Washington writer, is the author of the recently published novel, "If Men Were Angels" (Norton).