ADELPHI -- Gerald A. Heeger says the future of the University of Maryland, University College (UMUC) is in the hands of people like Judy Rowe.
At age 55, back in school after 35 years, she is the classic model of a nontraditional student who takes advantage of UMUC, the state's adult education institution. But she is also sold on online education.
"I love it," she says of the method she has used to take about a half-dozen courses while on her way to a bachelor's degree in psychology. "And I was not computer-savvy when I started."
Heeger, president of UMUC, is looking far beyond the Davidsonville home where Rowe has been taking her courses.
"I think there will only be four or five universities in the world that will become world-class virtual universities," Heeger says, sitting in his paneled office at UMUC's headquarters next to the University of Maryland, College Park. "Our goal is to make sure UMUC is one of them."
Rowe can see that potential from Davidsonville. "In one course, I have a professor who is in California. And there's a student from Japan in another. It gives your education an international outlook."
Like many segments of the dot-com world, online education seems to be riding a wave that will never end, with universities everywhere offering Web-based courses. Heeger says that wave will break.
And his job is to ensure that when it happens, UMUC is still standing.
"This is no different from any other e-commerce venture," says Heeger, who took over the presidency of UMUC nine months ago. "There's a big battle for market share."
Heeger was brought in from New York University -- where he pioneered cutting-edge online ventures -- to fight that battle. He sees the perfect weapon in UMUC, the 52-year- old, $127 million-a-year operation that enrolls almost 70,000 students worldwide.
Some dismiss his notion of four or five giants dominating the world of online education.
"When you think of all the colleges and universities there are in the world today -- about 3,600 in the United States alone -- the notion that there will be only three or four survivors is ludicrous," says Carol Twigg, who heads the Center for Academic Transformation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. "That's like saying everybody will go to Yale or Harvard. There's tremendous diversity in the market. What the Internet and technology allow is an explosion of universities."
But Gary Smith, associate vice president for distance education at Pennsylvania State University and director of its World Campus, agrees with Heeger.
"Ultimately, only a few institutions will have a significant impact using the Web to serve students beyond their own campuses," says Smith, who was at UMUC for seven years before going to Penn State in 1994. "That's because only a few institutions are prepared to do all the things you need to do to support students beyond their campuses."
Betsy Mayotte, an online specialist at the Johns Hopkins University, says: "I can certainly understand why [Heeger] is that confident. That institution is really highly regarded. They really are in the lead."
Heeger points out that UMUC has spent five decades developing a conventional version of the infrastructure a worldwide virtual university will need, crossing political and time zone boundaries since it first won lucrative contracts after World War II to teach soldiers stationed overseas. Members of the armed forces still make up the bulk of its enrollment.
"A lot of schools have no idea what online education is. In some ways, we have been playing ball in a virtual universe for 52 years," says Heeger, who recently attended UMUC's graduation ceremony at its campus in Japan and will go to its 50th commencement in Germany next month.
When Heeger pictures the traditional university, he sees the view coming out of the New York subway at Broadway and 116th Street. It's dominated by the backs of the buildings of Columbia University, with one small entrance into the quadrangle they face.
"The set-up tells you that the knowledge is inside, and you have to go inside to get it," Heeger says. "The virtual university has to be the opposite -- people with knowledge and those seeking it are spread all over."
For traditional institutions, the transition to the virtual world will be difficult. "Universities are not known for their adaptive abilities," Heeger says.
That doesn't stop them from trying. According to records from the U.S. Department of Education, distance-education programs nationwide grew by 72 percent from 1995 to 1998.
But the education lane of the information superhighway is already littered with wrecks. A much-ballyhooed consortium of state schools in the West -- the Western Governors University -- expected tens of thousands to sign up, but is instead struggling with a handful of students. A California system venture -- Cal Virtual -- went belly-up.