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Is Online Learning Mainstream?


With all of the current coverage of online education projects such as edX from Harvard and MIT, Coursera, the Khan Academy, and many other new initiatives, it seems that online learning is more popular than ever, especially to those working in and writing about the online education industry. But how widespread is it, really? And what does it mean to be "mainstream?"

Let's Look at the Numbers …

  • Students: According to Going the Distance, an annual survey of online education presented by The Sloan Consortium, (Sloan-C)" over 6.1 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2010 term." This group also found that almost a third (31%) of "higher education students now take at least one course online." And it's not just about college-level learners. Last year Forbes presented a report from Ambient Insight finding that "over 4 million K-12 students took at least one online course in 2010."
  • Courses: The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) found that during the 2006-2007 academic year "61% of 2-year and 4-year institutions reported offering online courses." And the 2011 Sloan-C report includes that a majority (65%) of schools surveyed "say that online learning is a critical part of their long-term strategy."
  • Demand: The Noel Levitz 2011 National Online Learners Priorities Report [PDF] finds that "online learners are a growing population on campuses across the country." Convenience, flexible pacing, and work schedules are cited as the three most important factors for enrollment in online courses. This was the case for students "enrolled primarily online" and those "enrolled primarily on campus." Face-to-face alternatives are in demand as students balance work and other responsibilities along with their studies.
  • Acceptance: While there may still be resistance from employers to hiring graduates of online programs, these numbers are improving. A 2010 study from the Society for Human Resource Management found that 87% of human resources professionals surveyed "agreed" or "strongly agreed" that "online degrees are viewed more favorably today than five years ago," and 79% had hired online graduates in the previous year. There has been widespread concern in the past that schools offering only online classes may have lower academic standards and less credibility than their traditional counterparts, however, as more of these traditional institutions launch their own online programs, online degrees may gain prestige and respect.

Many Models and Methods 

The University of North Carolina, Greensboro reminds us that online learning is no longer a "fringe option," and there isn't just one approach as "a vast array of tools and choices … open up a tremendous array of possibilities for innovative educators." From mobile learning and learning games to social media and adaptive technologies, what could be considered "online learning" is getting harder to strictly define. Idea.org challenges us to describe a typical online course. With a variety of existing courses that are academic and professional, for-credit and not-for-credit, formal and informal, "the sky's the limit" in terms of designing positive learning opportunities tailored to meet the needs of different learners and academic disciplines.

The advent of blended learning approaches, through which students experience both online and face-to-face components in their courses and programs, further blurs the division of what is online and on campus. Often proclaimed as the way forward in educational circles, blended options ideally bring together the best of both worlds.

Opportunity ahead?

"Can we please stop talking about online learning as if it's something new?" This request comes from Kevin J. Ruth, independent schools expert, and I think it's certainly safe to say online learning is no longer a trend. Many educators see the increasing use of technology to both deliver course materials and facilitate communication among students and instructors, as an opportunity to change the way we think about education. There is a desire to improve the ways in which we learn, increase access to learning opportunities, and extend the reach of educators.

The design and development of high-quality online learning options is not without challenges, but the task at hand for all of us involved in education is to make the best possible use of these environments to help students achieve their educational and career goals.

What do you think? How are you seeing online learning as mainstream education where you are?

June 4th, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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