Gov. Tim Pawlenty used his State of the State address to once again challenge Minnesota colleges and universities to offer at least 25 percent of their credits online by 2015. He also suggested that online learning should be a requirement for high school graduation beginning in 2013.

The governor makes a strong case for more e-learning. Expanding computer learning could save state funds if fewer classrooms are needed. Students, teachers and school systems could reduce transportation expenses. And computer-savvy students are better prepared for 21st-century jobs.

Minnesota schools must also keep pace with the competition. A growing number of national and international schools offer degree programs online. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) board supports the 25 percent goal. MnSCU schools increased the number of online credits delivered by 134 percent since 2005 and now offer more than 100 degrees completely online.

Despite the systemwide progress, individual MnSCU schools report a wide range of online participation. Northwest Technical College in Bemidji and Minnesota West Community and Technical College, for example, have more than 27 percent of their class offerings online. At the other end of the spectrum, Pine Technical College and Itasca Community College each have fewer than 2 percent of their courses online. Overall, the average for MnSCU is about 9 percent. Nationally, about 22 percent of all college students took at least one Web-based class in the fall of 2007.

To further push the distance-learning envelope, Pawlenty is asking colleges and universities to deliver more online noncredit education to help nontraditional students and displaced workers acquire additional job skills. And he has directed the state higher education office to explore online tuition reciprocity agreements with other states to give students more course choices. That kind of training could be an important component of general workforce development and lead to lower unemployment rates.

In the rush to expand online learning, a few caveats are important. Taking virtual classes is not for everyone. Studies have shown that some students do better in more traditional, structured programs.

And in the push to increase the quantity of Web-based courses, the quality of instruction should not be sacrificed. As University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks wrote in a letter to Pawlenty last fall, "The e-learning story -- both at the University and for the state of Minnesota -- cannot simply be about volume.''

At the K-12 level, it's hard to imagine any teenager reaching 12th grade without have some kind of online "experience,'' even if it only involves navigating YouTube and Facebook. Any new state requirement should offer concrete examples of educationally meaningful activities that would count toward graduation.

With those provisos, it's sensible to pursue the governor's goals. Online learning is a tremendous tool that can help expand educational opportunity across the state.