The options for online learning are expanding as the number of online students increases. In the fall semester of 2009 more than five million college and university students took at least one online course. This finding from the Sloan Consortium's 2010 Class Differences report was an increase from the previous year. While Campus Technology reports a possible decline in this growth pattern, market researchers from Ambient Insight forecast 25 million students enrolled in online courses by 2015. Not all of these students are, or will be, enrolled at strictly online universities.
In response to decreasing operating budgets and increasing student demand, many traditional schools are branching out to offer online courses as well as completely online programs. Online courses can both attract a new group of students to traditional schools and help alleviate costs associated with maintaining physical campus facilities. Today's higher education students, even many that live on campus, appreciate the convenience and flexibility of online courses that allow them to accommodate work schedules, family commitments, and additional activities.
Exploring New Options
What can you expect from a traditional-online experience? Explore some of the options now available, ranging from community colleges and state university systems to private schools and Ivy League institutions.
- Rio Salado College, part of the Maricopa Community College District in Arizona, is not new to online learning, but continues to enhance its offerings. With over 20 online certificate and degree options, Rio Salado is also part of the College Choices for Adults consortium – a voluntary group that monitors quality through student learning outcomes and assurance reviews.
- California Virtual Campus serves as a central hub to "provide complete, timely, and accurate information about online courses and programs in California higher education." This project allows students to search for online courses offered at institutions across the state and also provides distance education-related resources and support to both students and faculty.
- The University of California-Davis is just one school in the University of California system that will benefit from a grant awarded by The Next Generation Learning Challenges Program. Six new online courses are planned for UC Davis by the end of 2012. Other schools in the system will be adding online courses as well. This initiative hopes to improve the student experience in a number of ways that include making more sections of highly demanded courses available, offering requested courses more frequently, and reducing class size in large courses.
- The University of Washington recently announced plans to add to the current list of online courses through a new initiative that will not only add undergraduate level classes, but also work to reduce costs and improve efficiency. With this initiative 50 new undergraduate courses will be offered over the next two years. The University's continuing education department already offers 41 graduate level degrees and certificates online. An interesting component of this initiative is that it will not replace traditional courses with online versions, and instead will offer students both face-to-face and online options.
- The Pennsylvania State World Campus is also not new to distance education and has offered online courses for over 10 years. The most recent addition to a long list of online programs is a master's degree focusing on teacher leadership. Penn State strives to provide all students, no matter how their courses are delivered, with equivalent learning experiences and access to support services.
- Old Dominion University Distance Learning programs have graduated more than 3500 students in a combination of online programs and 46 satellite locations in Arizona, Washington, and Virginia. Explore their "How It Works" page for more information as well as self-assessments related to readiness for online learning and related technology needs.
- Harvard University is now offering online courses through its Harvard University Extension School. More than 150 semester-based courses are available in asynchronous (recorded video) and synchronous (live web-conference) formats. You can view several sample lectures online. Harvard also offers free, non-credit options through the Open Learning Initiative.
This is just a small sample of the online courses and programs currently offered by traditional institutions. If you are interested in taking online classes, but like the idea of having support services available nearby, contact your local colleges and universities to find out about their programs and future plans for online offerings.
Potential Implications for Online Students and Online Programs
- If the demand for online education continues to grow, additional options will become available across all types of higher education institutions – for-profit/not-for-profit and online/traditional – and prospective students will have more choices.
- Employers' opinions of online degrees are improving and may continue to do so as traditional colleges offer online degrees. Employers' views of online degrees are often related to the reputations of the schools that granted the degrees. Online degrees from traditional schools with established reputations may be a good option for students who need the flexibility of online schedules and location, but work in fields where degrees from prestigious schools are highly valued.
- Greater competition for available students is possible. How will online and traditional schools offering online options market similar programs? The desire to attract qualified students may result in new incentives, initiatives, and available services.
- An increased focus on the effectiveness of the learning experience takes the emphasis away from delivery mode. We are moving toward a place where you can make comparisons across a wider range of similar programs. No matter how a course or degree is delivered – face-to-face or online – it is important to focus on quality of the educational opportunity provided. A recent article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution captures this well, stating that while "online degrees are not all equal … programs that are well-designed, cost-effective and fill a workplace need will meet a ready demand."
While the number of online learning options may be increasing, that doesn't mean they will be right for everyone. There are pros and cons to online delivery and learners must approach this environment with a clear understanding of not only what will be expected of them, but also what they can expect from the institution. Prospective students, and traditional students considering online courses, should take the time required to assess their own readiness and choose a program best suited to their education and career goals.