Is Going Online the New Wave of Learning?


Current trends point to online education as the wave of the present...and future.

By Tony Moton

Fashion trends may come and go, but in the world of education, the stylish fad of online learning appears to have real staying power.

Did you know that 31 percent of all higher education students took at least one course online in the fall of 2010?

This statistic is found in Babson Survey Research Group's "Going the Distance: Online Education in the United States, 2011," the annual study with more than 2,500 surveyed academic leaders. The numbers tell us that the trend of distance learning is not expected to go out of style any time soon, says Douglas Hersh, dean of educational and online programs at Santa Barbara City College.

"Some people think distance education is a fad. It's not," says Hersh. "In the future, the campus will be the administrative and cultural center. The learning will occur wherever and whenever the individual wants it."

The future of distance learning might well be now. So, here's a closer look at five trendy aspects of online learning.

Online Trend #1: Online Enrollment Remains on the Upswing

Any way you look at the numbers - on a pie chart, flow chart, or bar graph - enrollment in online degree programs and courses has been steadily increasing in recent years.

According to the "Going the Distance" study, 1.6 million students took at least one online course in the fall of 2002. But in the fall of 2005, that number rose to nearly 3.2 million students.

And in the fall of 2010 - the most recent year for statistics - the number increased to 6.1 million students enrolled in one or more online courses. This eight-year uptick in online enrollment doesn't appear to be slowing down, at least not in the near future.

"What we now consider distance education is quickly becoming the most popular form of education for students who have grown up with interactive technology," Hersh says. "It will continue to outpace the growth of traditional education because it allows people to take classes in their own time and in their own place."

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Is there any end in sight to the enrollment upswing?

The online enrollment numbers should continue to rise over the next few years, according to the "Online Higher Education Market Update 2011" study by Eduventures, a Boston-based education research and consulting firm. This study projects that the percentage of college students taking online classes will hit 18 percent of the total enrollment in the fall of 2015 - up from 12 percent in the fall of 2010.

Online Trend #2: The Number of Online Programs is Growing

Less than 15 years ago, getting an online degree was almost unthinkable. But times have changed.

"From approximately 1999 to 2009, we saw the emergence of distance education on a case-by-case basis," Hersh says. "It was developed by early adopters (administrators and educators) who had an interest and desire to teach online."

These days, it looks as if online programs are expanding and growing faster than ever with schools starting to embrace distance education as a teaching and learning method. Case in point: "The Big Picture 2011," an online education study by Eduventures, suggested that schools are now rushing to add online programs to meet the demand of students.

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Based on figures supplied by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), which accredits degree-granting college programs in the 19-state North Central region, Eduventures reported that there were 4,202 HLC schools with online programs in April 2009.

But that number jumped to 8,414 accredited schools in the North Central region in April 2010. Examples of some states represented in this region include Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Colorado, and Arizona.

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Online Trend #3: Online Class Offerings are Expanding

What CAN'T you study online in 2012?

According to Eduventures' "The Big Picture 2011" study, business, computer and information technologies, nursing, health care, and criminal justice are among the most popular of all online majors. But did you know that you could also study subjects such as fashion and physical education in online programs?

"We've learned that just about anything can be taught at a distance using videos, interactive, and experiential technologies," Hersh says.

For example, at Santa Barbara City College in California, fully online degree programs include history, film studies, biomedical sciences, health information technology, and cancer information management.

The expanding variety of online courses is being aided by both technological advancements and the willingness of schools to teach subjects outside the norm, according to "The Horizon Report 2011 Edition."

Released by the New Media Consortium (NMC), which studies new media and new technologies, the annual "Horizon Report" found that technologies such as cloud-based computing, mobile devices, and electronic textbooks are making it easier for schools to provide "easy and pervasive access to information outside of formal (traditional) campus resources."

Online Trend #4: Interest in Learning Online is Growing

In the age of computer technology, lifestyles are changing faster than you can say Bill Gates.

For college students, these changes can be measured in how much more they prefer to study online than they do in traditional classrooms. This trend, according to the "The Horizon Report," is significant to continued growth of online education.

"People expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want," the report notes. "This highly-ranked trend, also noted last year, continues to permeate all aspects of daily life."

The reason?

People are getting more accustomed to having access to information and social interaction - quite literally - at their fingertips. So, instead of learning about the principles of psychology in a traditional classroom setting, students are more apt to - and comfortable with - studying on their laptops.

"Many students are more likely to respond to using 'Web 2.0 tools' online than to raising their hand in class," Hersh says, referring to the buzzword for the Internet's interactive capabilities.

For students who previously might have shied away from class participation in a traditional classroom, they could find that online courses have more of a democratic feel to them. Posting comments and raising questions are but a few clicks away.

"Distance education provides an almost best of both worlds that combines a sense of intimacy with a sense of community," Hersh adds. "Students now are able to take chances that they weren't able to take before in traditional classrooms."

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Online Trend #5: Teachers are (Slowly) Adapting to Teaching Online

Students appear to be at the forefront of the online learning movement, but their counterparts in virtual classrooms have been slower to change their traditional ways.

According to "The Horizon Report," teachers are simply not as quick to latch on to new technologies as fast as their younger pupils. In other words, digital media literacy - or lack thereof - is considered a major challenge that is helping to keep the number of online programs from spreading even faster.

But teachers are slowly catching on, the report cited, because schools are placing an emphasis on instructing educators in the art of teaching online.

"Teacher preparation programs are beginning to include courses related to digital media literacy, and universities are beginning to fold these literacy skills into coursework for students, but progress continues to be slow," noted "The Horizon Report."

The main challenge is that "digital technologies morph and change quickly at a rate that generally outpaces curriculum development," according to "The Horizon Report." So, online courses developed one year could be considered outdated the next year from a technological standpoint.

Hersh, a long-time proponent of online education, says teachers are starting to catch up with the distance education curve.

"Some instructors can't wait to develop their online courses," Hersh says. "They love using flip cams, videos, games, and the literally thousands of free online teaching tools that are available to them. Others are not so excited, but I think time will erase the distance between distance education and classroom-based education."

* These accredited, fully online degree programs are ranked by Eduventures, a Boston-based higher education research and consulting firm. Rankings are based on fall 2010 enrollments.

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