Ten years ago, the students enrolled in online education courses came from all over the country. Many of them were beginning degrees for the first time, finishing where they left off, or taking selected courses in order to enhance their career options.
In most cases, these students were "nontraditional students." They were older than the students on campus, and they took courses online because their careers and families made it difficult for them to add regular classroom meetings and assignments to their busy schedules. Online education offered nontraditional students flexibility. They could do the work for their courses whenever and wherever they wanted.
Often the term "online education" was synonymous with "distance education." This reflected the fact that most students taking courses from an online degree program didnӴ live or work in geographical proximity to the university in which they were enrolled. Online education isnӴ as distant anymore. In fact, it is becoming an increasingly important component of every studentӳ college education as more and more campus-based students enroll in online courses that are offered by their universities.
A new survey indicates that one in five college students is currently taking at least one course online, and this number is predicted to continue to rise. From ivies, to large state universities, to small liberal arts colleges, more campus-based students are taking online courses as part of their traditional college education. Many universities are now claiming that increased demand from on campus students fuels the expansion of online education programs as well as technological innovations in education.
Campus-based students are attracted to online courses for many of the same reasons that "distance students" once were: they allow greater flexibility, especially when it comes to balancing work and study. The cost of a college education continues to rise and surpass inflation, government aid, and household income.
Not surprisingly then, more students need to work while in college to help pay their tuition. Elizabeth Farrell reports that a survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute of UCLA revealed that "almost half of college freshmen -- a record 47.2 percent -- said there was a 'very good chance' that they would have to work during the academic year." For these students, now almost half of all students, online courses free up their course schedules and make it easier to balance work and education.
Additionally, universities now find themselves with more students and less classroom space. Providing instructors and classrooms to meet the demands of more students has proven difficult. As a result, many students are frustrated over conflicts in their schedules that can slow their progress towards graduation. For example, the only open section of English 101 may conflict with the only open section of Business 101, and the student will have to choose which requirement to take now, and which to defer until next semester.
Consequently, many students would welcome having the option of taking one of those courses online. Traditional bricks and mortar universities are responding to these problems by increasing the number of courses students can take online. Some universities now require students to take online courses as part of their degree requirements because there just isnӴ enough classroom space to accommodate increased student enrollments.
Financial difficulties have also driven increases in online education offerings at the high school level. Michigan has recently passed legislation that requires all high school students to take at least one online course. Other states are sure to follow Michiganӳ lead. Many legislators recognize that online technologies allow students to have access to educational opportunities that are under-funded in their own local school districts. Additionally, educators and legislators alike are confronting the fact that online education is the way of the future. The sooner high school students can become familiar with the technologies they will encounter in their college-level courses, the better.
Universities with traditional on campus programs continue to create more opportunities for online education. Even students who meet in classrooms for traditional face-to-face instruction will find themselves engaged in online course activities. These can range from downloading lectures as podcasts, to posting responses to course material on a discussion board, to completing and submitting assignments online.
Some classes are simultaneously conducted in virtual as well as bricks and mortar classrooms. These hybrid classes allow students to choose from a set of prescheduled face to face meetings while still completing a portion of the course online. Students get the best of both worlds: face time with the instructor and other students in the class, and the convenience of online learning.
In some exceptional cases, classrooms have entirely moved to virtual reality. For example, a recent survey found that over one hundred universities have campuses in Second Life. Peter J. Ludlow at the University of Toronto recently taught a course in Second Life to real life students enrolled in a real life university. As avatars, they met in a virtual classroom on a virtual campus in a virtual world to discuss the philosophical and social aspects of online worlds. They were assigned real grades that counted towards their real degrees.
While Professor Ludlow found the educational experience in Second Life somewhat dissatisfying, he nonetheless acknowledged that studentsҠpersonal learning preferences fuel technological advances in education. College students, referred to as "millennials," are coming to universities "wired," eager to use their technological skills for educational purposes.
Professors are increasingly seeing the value of a hybrid education. Many instructors find that by adding online aspects to their classroom courses, creating hybrid classrooms, and in some cases transforming their courses into entirely online courses, they create more opportunities for students to master the course material. For many, this is because students themselves extensively rely on web technologies for entertainment and education, and businesses will expect their new college graduate employees to have an unprecedented familiarity with technology.
Professors also recognize that online education can create new portals for enhancing individual studentsҠeducational needs that canӴ be replicated in a traditional classroom. The shy student who is reluctant to participate in classroom discussions may feel empowered by the anonymity of posting to a discussion board, or appreciate having more time to compose an e-mail that reflects their ideas on a discussion topic. Some students appreciate being able to listen to podcasts while watching a PowerPoint slide show ֠educational tools that can appeal to both aural and visual learners and the new "millennial" studentӳ habit of technological multitasking.
University officials are recognizing that students want and need more educational options in college. Online education appeals to both the demands of studentsҠbusy lifestyles and their personal experiences with new technologies. Students are eager and ready for online education to help them meet their goals, and universities are changing the ways they both conceptualize and deliver education. "Distance" learning isnӴ distant anymore, and even campus-based students will find online technologies an increasing component of their higher education.