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Why Is Online Learning Seeing a Surge in Popularity?

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Amanda Gould

Amanda Gould says online education is a natural outgrowth of Bay Path’s efforts to serve non-traditional students.

This year marks the 15th consecutive year of growth in what’s known as online, or distance, learning at U.S. colleges and universities. But a newer trend is seeing students fresh out of high school — not just the working adults that have dominated the online-learning world — logging on as well. At a time of changing demographics in higher education, area schools that have embraced the distance model simply say they’re meeting students where they want to be.

Before online college courses were a thing — heck, before ‘online’ was a thing — attending college was tougher for some than others, and for many, finding a path to a degree while working and raising a family was too high a scheduling hurdle.

Amanda Gould, chief administrative officer for the American Women’s College (TAWC) at Bay Path University, said Bay Path has long been responsive to that need — specifically, the Saturday programs it started offering in 1999 for students who had work or family responsibilities during the week.

“It was intended to be an additional entry point to higher education, for students who didn’t enroll right after high school, or tried to go to another college but never actually completed,” she told BusinessWest. “The options at the time — evening programs and traditional semester-based models — were not conducive to working adults supporting a family.”

Around 2007, she went on, the concept of online learning (also known as distance learning) started to gain traction, and when Bay Path made forays in that direction, feedback was positive. The American Women’s College — which offers a host of online degree programs, from accounting to criminal justice; from child psychology to food science and safety — was founded in 2013 with a mission to expand access to higher education to working women who do not have a college degree.

“You can manage your own time and work on your own schedule, as opposed to trying to keep to a certain schedule every week. It gives you that flexibility,” Gould noted.

Online classes allow students to engage in classroom activity — much of which takes place on forums and discussion boards — on their own schedule. And that ‘additional entry point’ isn’t just anecdotal: 70% percent of TAWC students are first-generation college attendees, one-third are single mothers, and more than half are Pell-eligible, which speaks to economic need.

At American International College (AIC), a host of degree programs in the health sciences — a master’s degree in nursing, an RN-to-BSN program, and an occupational therapy doctorate, to name a few — meet similar scheduling needs, particularly for professionals already working in those fields who seek advanced degrees without having take time away from work.

“Obviously, the clinical piece has to be on the ground, but all the didactic coursework occurs online,” said Cesarina Thompson, dean of AIC’s School of Health Sciences.

Karin Moyano Camihort, dean of Online Programs at Holyoke Community College (HCC), said her department understands the importance of work, family, and other commitments, and the college’s online degree and certificate programs make it easier for busy people to earn a degree without sacrificing priorities.

“Our students choose online for a variety of reasons,” she told BusinessWest. “Some are working adults that are looking for flexibility; some are college students from other institutions that join our summer or accelerated courses, and some are high-school students starting their college experience ahead of schedule.”

HCC’s three most popular degrees — business administration, liberal arts, and criminal justice — can all be completed fully online, on campus, or both, by taking some courses online and some on campus. “Plus, our partnerships with four-year colleges and universities make transfer easier,” she noted.

In short, online learning at the college level is expanding at a rapid rate, both locally and nationally — and, increasingly, it’s more than just working adults logging on.

Clicking with the Public

In the 2017 study “Tracking Distance Education in the United States,” the Babson Survey Research Group revealed that online student enrollments increased for the 14th straight year in 2016-17, with more than 31% of all college students taking at least one distance-education course — and all evidence suggests the uptick has continued this year.

“The growth of distance enrollments has been relentless,” wrote study co-author Julia Seaman, research director of the Babson Survey Research Group. “They have gone up when the economy was expanding, when the economy was shrinking, when overall enrollments were growing, and now when overall enrollments are shrinking.”

Public institutions command the largest portion of distance-education students, with 67.8% of all students studying online. And a handful of colleges and universities have broadly embraced the model, with 5% of institutions accounting for almost half of all distance-education students.

The study also showed that distance learning doesn’t necessarily mean actual distance: 52.8% of all students who took at least one online course also took a course on-campus, and 56.1% of those who took only online courses reside in the same state as the institution at which they are enrolled. Fewer than 1% of all distance students are located outside the U.S.

“Online has really grown quite a bit over the years and become very sophisticated in how the whole learning experience is managed,” Thompson said, explaining that AIC uses a platform called Blackboard, one of several management systems in use today, that offers multiple ways for professors and students to interact online, from message boards to videoconferencing. “It can be asynchronous, with students logging in whenever they want to, and can also be arranged as a synchronous experience, with all students online at a certain time.”

Cesarina Thompson

Cesarina Thompson says AIC’s online programs offer opportunities for face-to-face interaction, but enough tools that those meetings aren’t always necessary.

For those who might wonder how engaged students are, that’s something instructors can easily track.

“The technology is advanced nowadays, and you really can engage students much more frequently; in an online learning environment, I might say to a student, ‘I want to see you’re logging in at least twice a week and entering responses to these questions,’” she explained. “In a classroom setting, a student can stand in the shadows and never say a word, but with analytics, we who know who’s logging in, when, and how many times.”

Gould said classes at TAWC are run in a cohort model, meaning the students navigate through the courses together, although they don’t necessarily have to be online at the same time. Often, the lecture-hall experience is replaced by reading offline, while online ‘classroom’ time is spent on projects, group work, active learning, and lab-based activities.

However, this model not always the easiest option, she said.

“What people don’t realize is the time-management piece is actually very tricky,” she noted. “It takes a lot of self-motivation and a certain skill set to be able to block out times. Some folks end up doing a lot of work when they’re exhausted, late in the evening. So, I don’t think it’s easy by any means, but it appeals to people who want to feel in control of when they work.”

Meanwhile, recognizing that person-to-person interaction is a big part of college life, Bay Path has created a series of social-engagement opportunities for its online students, from Facebook communities to support from peer mentors who can answer questions and provide feedback, to national learning communities online, where students learn about organizations in their field, job postings, and area events. “We want to keep them engaged as much as possible both inside and outside the classroom.”

Moyano Camihort said HCC offers fellowship programs for faculty where they enhance their online-instruction skills and share best practices.

“Our online faculty also teach on campus, so there is a real connection to our college,” she went on. “We have a brick-and-mortar building. We also have a dynamic and innovative online learning environment where students connect with instructors and peers, access lectures and materials, submit assignments, work in groups, and learn online.”

The results, she went on, are evident in enrollment figures — one-third of all credits currently available at HCC are online. “Our students prefer online courses, and even though they will tell you that our courses are challenging, they continue to choose online.”

Virtual Revolution

The flip side, of course, is the effect on colleges when it comes to on-campus enrollment, and the long-term impacts remain unclear. According to the Babson study, the number of students studying on a campus dropped by almost 1.2 million, or 6.4%, between 2012 and 2016.

Jeff Seaman, co-director of Babson and a co-author of the study, expects this trend to persist in 2018 and beyond. He also believes the number of students who only take on-campus courses will probably keep dropping, in part because more students are combining online and in-person learning.

Susan Aldridge, president of Drexel University Online, says online degree programs in 2018 will increase their use of modern technologies to enhance their curriculums, including a move toward virtual and augmented reality, which can allow students to learn in simulated environments, and remote technologies, such as videoconferencing and robotic telepresence, to allow for more face-to-face interaction among students and instructors.

At the American Women’s College, the demographics still largely favor a mix of working mothers and professionals who want to advance in their careers, but there has also been an increase in students under age 25, who now account for 10% of online enrollment.

“I do think we’re going to see a shift in higher-education enrollment for these types of alternative models, for a number of reasons,” Gould said. “Financially, the residential experience is becoming outpriced for a number of students. I think we’ll see younger working students who are juggling school and life, and as we see future generations becoming college-ready, expectations around technology and virtual engagement will only be on the rise.

“I think,” she went on, “we are only going to see continuous, growing demand for online options.”

Thompson agreed that online courses aren’t limited to working adults, and some younger students prefer a blended model, mixing online with traditional or hybrid courses, the latter being programs that require some physical classroom time amid the online coursework.

“We’re online, but we still draw from a local market, so there’s still the possibility of face-to-face contact between faculty and students,” she said. “If they want to stop by and have a meeting, we can do that, but there are enough tools online that it’s not always necessary.”

One positive for colleges, she noted, is that, at a time when the region’s demographics are shifting older, the ability to capture working adults will be a boon for colleges that embrace online and distance models.

“With an aging population, a decline in birth rates, and an outmigration to other states, it’s going to be a challenge for institutions of higher education going forward,” she said. “With a declining high-school-graduate population, we have to adapt to other populations who may not be able to make it to class as a full-time student — and utilizing online and other flexible modes of delivery is certainly one way to do that.”

It’s all about adapting to a 21st-century student body, Gould said, that is far more comfortable with high-tech solutions than previous generations.

“Students are becoming so dependent on technology to do so much in their lives, but trying to figure out how to fit all those things together is not an easy task,” she said. “It takes time to figure out, and it takes finances. It’s expensive to integrate technology; it’s not a cheap pursuit if you want to do it well. But, from a mission perspective, that’s the only way to do it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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