Every day brings an intriguing mix of spam to my inbox, and invariably, one or two messages say something like this:

Diplomas from prestigious non-accredited universities based on your present knowledge and life experience. No required tests, classes, books, or interviews. Bachelors, masters, MBA, and doctorate (PhD) diplomas available in the field of your choice. No one is turned down.

A degree from a non-accredited university. How could anyone resist an offer like that? (Gee, I could finally achieve my dream of a master’s degree in WordPerfect 5.0 macros.)

At the other end of the spectrum, far, far away from the scams, are the legitimate degree programs that can be pursued online—where tests, classes, books, and interviews are required.

If you’ve thought about trying to wedge an MBA or other degree around your busy schedule, going online may be the easiest way to do it. Just think: You could take classes at 3 A.M. in your jammies, with no parking hassles.

From a distance—or close to home
For a first virtual stop, try a campus near you. Your local university or college may have online offerings. For your first foray into “distance learning” it would be comforting to know that your professor is close by.

EduPoint.com helps you find local options. When you click for the Advanced search, enter your ZIP code, the type of program or experience you’re looking for (certification, associate degree, graduate program, etc.), along with some keywords, and you’ll pull up available classes and programs.

I searched for offerings within 25 miles of my ZIP code, using the keyword “computer,” and pulled up 79 hits. Among the results: a Computer Network Administration program from the Louisville Technical Institute; a Master of Arts in Computer Resources and Information Management from Webster University; and an Assembly Language Programming class at Bellarmine College.

Next to the class or program, you’ll see its accreditation status. The three I focused on all had “regional accreditation.” According to EduPoint, regional accreditation is the highest level of accreditation for colleges and universities—curiously, even higher than “national” accreditation. It explains that the United States is divided into six accreditation regions, and accreditation in one is recognized in all the others.

EduPoint also helps find specific classes and degrees that can be pursued from afar. Just clear out your ZIP code and click the Distance Learning checkbox to widen your net. (Hmmm. Here’s an interesting class: Radiation Heat Transfer from the University of Southern California School of Engineering.)

EduPoint is free to search and free to join. Members receive a few extra benefits over casual surfers: one is that they’re allowed to register for classes online.

Instruction from the West
OnlineLearning.net offers courses from UCLA Extension, the University of San Diego, and the California CPA Education Foundation. Classes are grouped in four broad categories: business, computers, education, and writing. You can search for classes that interest you or download a PDF version of the current catalog.

The system uses proprietary software, which it describes as “similar to e-mail but it goes way beyond. Besides private, one-to-one messages, you can join in public discussions, have live ‘chats’ between any number of people, and exchange a variety of documents and course materials.”

Course prices range from $81 to $150 per unit, and a demo of the software is available for download.

A varied curriculum

  • Canyon College of Caldwell, ID, invites you to “earn your online college degrees in the comfort of your home or office without setting foot on a campus.” Associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees can all be pursued online.
  • The University of Maryland University College claims more than 25 years in distance learning. Bachelor’s degrees in 14 specializations are offered, as well as master’s degrees in 10 fields. Courses may also be taken a la carte.
  • The University of Phoenix Online says you can complete 100 percent of your university studies from virtually anywhere in the world. Undergraduate degrees are geared toward business and computers (e.g., Bachelor of Science in Information Technology/Database Management) while graduate programs offer several flavors for MBAs. (Master of Science in Computer Information Systems is also an option.)
  • Want to peer at the lesson plans and syllabi of instructors who are using the Web to teach university-level courses? Folks at the University of Texas at Austin have gathered links for you in their World Lecture Hall .

And that’s what I’ve seen worth citing this week.

Lauren Willoughby is a Web editor at The Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, KY, where she also writes the weekly “Technophobe” column. At night, she turns into an online auction junkie. When she’s not spotting deals on refurbished 486s, she’s reading a science fiction novel.