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Online Learning: It’s not just about distance

I was involved in a group discussion via email recently that addressed priorities for student registration in a graduate level course offered as part of a traditional campus program. The course was being offered in two sections, one online and one in a blended format. The whole situation was interesting to watch as the online section filled quickly. The crisis mounted as wait-listed students appealed to the department that they needed this course, this semester, and could only take it completely online. Many courses of action were discussed, including asking students who lived within one hour's drive of campus to register for the blended section.

This option was not moved forward, but there was talk of adding a question about commuting distance to the permit process for online sections in future terms. Are online courses only for students who live far from campus? Well, this may have been the intent of early distance education programs that focused specifically on outreach to students who lived too far from campus to attend classes. But from the days of correspondence courses and the development of regional campus offices to expanding online offerings and the emergence of online universities, the number of reasons an individual might choose online delivery are increasing.  

So, why might a student choose an online section of a course, or a completely online program, when an equivalent option is available at a nearby campus?


Students choose to learn online because:


It's convenient. Noel-Levitz's Priorities of Online Learners surveys consistently find convenience to be the most important decision factor for students enrolling in online options. Convenience doesn't necessarily relate to easiness, as online courses require as much, if not more, effort as their traditional counterparts. Convenience does mean flexibility and the ability to access and participate in a course at varying times and locations, listening to lectures and joining in discussions 24/7. Recent developments in mobile learning also allow students to shift their learning experiences not only out of the traditional classroom environment but also away from their desks as they access course materials and participate in activities via tablets and smartphones.

They have scheduling conflicts. Time is an issue for all of us as we struggle to balance work and family responsibilities. When school is added to the schedule, the potential for conflict increases substantially. According to Noel-Levitz, the majority of students taking courses online are employed full-time. Of the responses received from over 90,000 students in the past three years, over half are married and over two-thirds are female. Students may choose online options because of scheduling conflicts with their employment and family situations, even though they live and/or work near campus.

Working while taking courses can present balance challenges, but can also be beneficial to the student, especially if there is some sort of relationship between, or way to connect, the coursework with practical activities and tasks happening in the workplace. Employers may also be helpful in funding the student's participation in coursework through tuition assistance. Noel-Levitz found "flexible pacing for completing a program" to be the second most important factor influencing student online enrollment, and "work schedule" to be the third most important factor. Having "financial assistance available" ranked seventh. 

Scheduling conflicts can also include a variety of other scenarios that involve things like transportation availability, childcare assistance, and the schedules of other required courses. We used to have to choose between two courses that were offered on the same day at the same time, possibly extending our programs into an extra term. Now if one of the courses is offered online, we can proceed with our degree plan without delay. And for students who have been in classes on campus during the day, evening courses may lack appeal when online options are available.

They live too far away from campus. Geographic location is still a reason to pursue online courses and programs. Online learning options allow students to pursue higher education goals even if they don't live near a traditional college or university. But what about students who do happen to live within driving distance of campuses, but the local schools don't offer the programs they are interested in taking? Online options can open doors for these students to access the learning opportunities that will help them reach their goals. "Distance from Campus" ranked 10th in importance by the way, in the Noel-Levitz study of online learners.


Online Learning Today


The Sloan Consortium's most recent study of online learning, Going the Distance, found that 31% of college and university students are taking a course online, with total online enrollment now over 6 million in the United States alone. It looks like online education is here to stay, and will likely continue to evolve in terms of the design and development of learning environments and use of various technologies for communication and delivery of materials.

There are many concerns that still need to be addressed. How, for example, is quality in online learning being measured? Accreditation is just one type of assessment to be aware of as additional initiatives work to define quality in online education and identify specific components that enhance learning practices. And online learning is not for everyone. The environment requires specific skills and characteristics, such as written communication, time management, self-motivation, and perseverance.

Whether it's in the form of an online course offered by a traditional institution, as part of a blended or online program, or through a completely online university, online options are expanding and there is evidence that this kind of accessibility is important for today's student in higher education. What do you think? What factors contribute to student decisions about course delivery? Consider sharing your perspective as an online learner or instructor.