Many adults with busy lives due to family and work obligations are looking to online education venues to provide them career advancement opportunities with something that would have previously been out of reach: a place as a student. They see it as the perfect way to unite their craving for social mobility or a more focused career with their strict daily schedules. For the first time, higher education is accessible to them, and possibilities are wide open. Predictably, online education is hot.
A few figures in higher education do not necessarily view pixelated schoolrooms as equal to brick-and-mortar institutions, however. For some, the traditional way of attending college is the only way one may garner respect both in the academy and in the workplace.
According to a 2015 survey co-sponsored by the Online Learning Consortium and Babson Survey Research Group:
- The proportion of chief academic leaders that say online learning is critical to their long‐ term strategy fell from 70.8% last year to 63.3% this year
- The percent of academic leaders rating the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face‐to‐face instruction is now at 71.4%
- Only 29.1% of academic leaders report that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education.” Among schools with the largest distance enrollments, 60.1% report faculty acceptance while only 11.6% of the schools with no distance enrollments do so (1).
Skepticism toward online education programs may be traced to several reasons. For one, for-profit private universities have recently received negative press for indulging in what some people consider predatory practices (2). Enrollment has largely decreased for them, and this has placed a negative mark on the distance education field as a whole. But, many other institutions possess different philosophies as they craft their programs. A decrease in enrollment at locations such as the University of Phoenix or Corinthian Colleges was offset by a rise in online enrollment of more than 11 percent at private, nonprofit institutions.
Traditionalism may also be to blame. Online education is a relatively new phenomenon, and technology is characteristically intimidating to portions of society given its unknown implications and impossible-to-predict trajectory. Educators still idealize the smell of chalkboards and the spectacle of intense Socratic conversations. Lectures have been a staple of the world of education. To many, however, meaningful dialogue is not dead–it’s just taking place in different channels.
Online education is one of the best options for individuals with real-world responsibilities that they cannot temporarily take a break from. For this reason, students are enrolling in online programs at a rapid pace. In 2014, during the time of the study cited above, the number of students taking one or more online courses grew 3.9 percent, higher than the year before. More than a quarter of all students, or 5.8 million, took one or more online courses that year. It’s not only convenient to them, but also effective at instilling necessary skills.
Today, more than one in four students (28%) now take at least one distance education course. If they do not possess fully online programs, countless traditional four-year and two-year colleges are implementing hybrid classes for both their academic core and major-specific courses. They are creating online graduate schools featuring programs that are in high demand, but offering bi-weekly Saturday classes to provide students with the concrete feelings of belonging (see the University of Houston). Many institutions are also incorporating virtual-coaching services that help with professional development and face-to-face interaction. There are countless ways to host these distance education programs, and many schools are getting creative.
Online education is a constantly-evolving and fluid market not set to retire anytime soon. While a portion of the higher education community may currently view it with suspicion, the large cohorts of students indulging the programs may force educators to grapple with it sooner than later. Older generations may scoff at it, but the modern generation has spoken and let its propensity for positive change be known.