The proliferation of technology and greater access to the Internet has opened the floodgates for college and, in some cases, high school students to participate in online learning. As a result, academic leaders at colleges and universities are seeing an uptick in online enrollment figures.
According to an analysis conducted in 2011 by the Babson Survey Research Group, there is currently a more positive perception among leaders of online learning, with the majority stating that online learning provides the same or superior results as traditional classroom instruction.
This trend has improved steadily since initially being measured in 2003. Now nearly half of private sector academic institutions report an increased demand for face-to-face courses and programs, whereas 70 percent said the demand for online courses and programs has grown due, in part, to a languishing economy.
“Online student enrollments continue to be the fastest growing sector in higher education,” said Dr. Anthony Pina, Dean of Online Studies for the Sullivan University System. “Private-sector colleges and universities are meeting these students’ unique needs by virtue of their ability to enact rapid deployment and take full advantage of innovations and new technologies.”
A newly released study by the Babson Survey Research Group and the College Board reveals that the number of students taking online courses continues to climb, citing that those taking at least one online course have now surpassed 6 million, meaning now nearly one-third of all students in higher education are taking at least one online course.
“The rate of growth in online enrollments is 10 times that of the rate in all higher education,” said study co-author I. Elaine Allen, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group. “While growth rates have declined somewhat from previous years, we see no evidence that a dramatic slowdown in online enrollments is on the horizon.”
The same holds true at Wayne State University. According to Director of Online Programs Jim Mazoué, data collected at the university indicate a continuing growth in online learning.
In 2009-10, 16,000 students enrolled in at least one online course at Wayne State, compared to 19,000 in 2010-11. In 2011-12, that number jumped by 26 percent, or to 24,000 students.
“We’re witnessing double-digit increases since 2008,” Mazoué said. “It’s leveled off a little because of the economy and enrollment is down in general nationally, but at WSU, the growth rate is 1.5 times the national average.”
Mazoué noted that the pros of online learning outweigh the cons, from the student perspective.
“We’ve done surveys and the top factors that are most important to students is convenience and flexibility,” he said. “We are a commuter campus and students prefer not to drive and pay for parking. Many students are working and it’s hard to find courses that fit into their schedule.”
Wayne State currently offers 600 online courses, which represents 5 percent of the university’s total course offerings. This includes three entire masters degree programs and one bachelors of arts degree program in social work, one of the few in the country.
“Online learning also offers adaptive learning and an individual learning experience,” Mazoué said. “There is a widespread misunderstanding that this will cheapen the educational experience and get an inferior product.”
At Oakland Community College (OCC), online enrollment has also skyrocketed since it began in fall 1997, when only one English course was offered online.
“OCC is finding that our students view distance learning as a great convenience to achieve their education anywhere and at any time,” said OCC Chancellor Timothy Meyer.
Statistics compiled by George Cartsonis, director of college communications for OCC, show that in the fall of 2010, online enrollment was recorded at 1,696 students; in 2011, it was 2,266; and 2,684 in fall 2012.
“Online students account for roughly 10 percent of the total 27,503 students enrolled,” Cartsonis said. “Our director of technology says by any measure online courses are very popular and fill very quickly — almost as soon as they are offered.”
There are 29 general subject areas offered online at the college.
“Its advantages are flexibility for both the students and instructor and fits in nicely with work schedules and family obligations,” Cartsonis added.
He added that one professor taught a course while in India and has had students enrolled from as far away as China.
“You can access courses anywhere and at any time, plus it saves travel time and expenses,” he said. “Furthermore, it provides quick feedback.”
Online learning provides the impetus to receive an education to those with special circumstances that couldn’t otherwise, like women with small children who are homebound.
“For some people, online is the only way to get an education,” he said.
The same pattern can be seen at Oakland University. According to Web Application Developer and Interim Director of Online Learning John Coughlin, in 2010, OU’s online enrollment was 6,357 for fall and winter semesters, 7,756 in 2011, and 9,065 in 2012.
“We’ve seen a huge uptick,” Coughlin said. “More course materials are being offered online, like reading materials and lectures, so even if the actual course isn’t offered completely online, certain aspects are, such as interactive elements like discussion forums and chats.”
Currently Oakland University offers 17 online programs.
Coughlin said there are many benefits to online learning, but it hinges on the quality of the teacher.
“It comes down to the quality of the teacher who can leverage the technology to their advantage and the advantage to the students,” he said.
According to the university’s research, students who thrive on anonymity are more likely to participate in online learning programs.
“For those who are shy and introverted, they may not want face-to-face instruction, so they are more likely to participate in activities like discussion boards,” he said.
However, online instruction has its share of disadvantages.
“To have a successful online course, you need a lot of feedback and interaction with the professor and other students,” Wayne State’s Mazoué explained. “The big factor working against online course study is that it’s still new and the faculty needs training with technology and to teach it effectively in an online environment.”
He added that some courses may not be as well designed as others.
“It gets to be a quality issue,” Mazoué said.
Oakland University’s Coughlin concurs.
“I’m not necessarily of the thought that online (learning) is better,” he said. “There are pros and cons to each style of instruction, and both can be effective.”
OCC’s Cartsonis cited that students must be committed, self-driven and organized.
“Students must work hard, if not harder, in classes and must be dedicated to meeting class deadlines,” he said. “Students who are used to texting and reading material online do not always have the reading and writing skills required for successful college work, and punctuation is the first casualty.”
Cartsonis added that even in this day and age, there are students who can’t afford computers and must rely on libraries, which can also be a drawback.
Still, despite the disadvantages, experts agree online learning is evolving and will undoubtedly be the wave of the future.
“It’s a very exciting time in education — a time of transformation,” Mazoué said. “There is a realization that the current model is not financially sustainable and it’s important to use technology in ways to improve the quality of learning and reduce costs.”
One way to mitigate costs for universities will be scaling back on building facilities while increasing enrollment in a virtual environment.
“Students don’t have to come to class so there will be less need to build as many buildings and yet we will be able to accommodate more students,” Mazoué said. “You could have 150,000 students enrolled in a class and offered by lead institutions like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and (the University of Michigan).”
At Wayne State, online instruction is web-based using the Blackboard learning management system. There, students can interact in discussions, postings, web conferencing, submitting assignments, and receiving feedback. Lectures can be recorded and uploaded to Blackboard.
“Rather than just a series of canned lectures, the emphasis is on exercises and assignments so the students are actively engaged in a participatory environment and use the feedback to improve understanding,” Mazoué said.
To ensure students are not isolated and remain engaged, OCC posts galleries of photos and snippets of information about the students so they can become acquainted.
“There is virtual socialization and that’s one way of getting around that,” Cartsonis said.
Most instructors are willing to meet on a one-on-one basis and offer students the opportunity to sit in a traditional classroom if they find that helpful. There are also online audio meetings and presentations, and typically online students are required to come in at the end of the semester to give an oral presentation.
OCC has a strategic plan in place to offer entire degree programs solely online.
“We are also constantly striving to improve delivery methods, but clearly we have been successful by the unbroken increase in the number of students enrolled,” Cartsonis said.
According to Coughlin, Oakland University has designed a new lecture capture system for online learning over the last few years, where lectures are recorded and can be accessed easily by the student.
“It’s a convenient way to make a library of lectures so the student can review them,” Coughlin said.
Oakland University is also continually making improvements to online learning given the rise in online enrollment.
“We are making minor tweaks and upgrades to familiarize students while improving the quality in online courses; and at the same time, training teachers to use the technology effectively,” Coughlin said.
Currently in the infancy stages, and planned to be developed more fully in the future, is an opportunity for students known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS).
Technology mogul Bill Gates is offering the grant program for introductory courses in various disciplines free of charge.
“This could apply to AP students in high school, for example,” Wayne State’s Mazoué said. “These will be totally free of charge courses and take just a minute to enroll, but even though they are free, they won’t give the student credit, just a certification of accomplishment.”
However, Mazoué said currently a pair of accredited universities will allow these courses as transfer credits at Colorado State University and Antioch.
“That’s one of the interesting developments putting pressure on universities — not only considering online offerings but if they should participate in MOOCS,” he said. “Universities may very well have tuition-free degrees in the future where the student pays only for a test at the end to establish credentials so the student isn’t paying for an education, but paying for a degree/diploma/certification.
“Some speculate that’s where things are heading. There are financial pressures and institutions realize they can’t do business as usual and online is one way to go,” he said. “Improving the quality of education is a game changer.”