Once considered a fringe element of higher education, online degree programs have seen explosive growth in recent years. Although the overall higher education student population grew only 2 percent in 2009, enrollments in online courses surged by 21 percent, according to a report by the Sloan Consortium, a nonprofit organization dedicated to studying and improving online education. That expansion seems poised to continue. Last month, UCLA Extension announced it will be offering a handful of online programs starting in September 2012 -- joining a recent wave of traditional universities that are expanding their distance education offerings.
Big names test the waters with online degree programs
Anyone doubting whether the trend toward virtual degrees is here to stay needs only to look at the long list of traditional universities and colleges now boasting robust online programs, which includes the following:
- University of Southern California
- University of Maryland
- DePaul University
- University of Massachusetts
In some cases, the move to online education was born out of a need to address declining revenues and increasing costs. The University System of Maryland (USM) enacted a policy in 2003 requiring all students to complete 12 credits outside the traditional learning environment. According to Mike Lurie, spokesman for USM, "The policy was put into place as part of an effectiveness and efficiency initiative."
To meet the requirement, students can complete online coursework, participate in an externship or internship, or seek out other learning opportunities. Lurie says the policy serves dual purposes. "It reduces the burden on campuses and also makes our degree-seeking programs more dynamic," he notes.
Other universities created their online programs in response to student demand. In 2008, the University of Southern California (USC) had the infrastructure to produce a mere 100 teaching candidates through its Masters of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program. Today, 1,500 students are enrolled in the university's online MAT@USC program, the country's first fully online MAT degree.
Public universities offer different types of online degrees
If exclusively online colleges feel threatened as traditional universities move to virtual learning, they aren't indicating it. According to Bob Cohen, Senior Vice President for Communications for the Association for Private Sector Colleges and Universities (APSCU), for-profits and traditional colleges are engaging with online learners in very different ways.
Cohen said there are often distinctions between programs at traditional universities and the APSCU schools, which include more than 1,600 institutions offering online, on-campus and hybrid degree programs.
"Traditional schools may offer continuing education or adult education ... sometimes a full-on degree but not often," Cohen says. "For most colleges and universities, it is a question of putting their toes in the water."
Meanwhile, Cohen notes that APSCU members offer a type of education that is attractive to job seekers. "These programs are very focused, very concentrated on moving people into the workforce very quickly."
Cohen believes that remains a key difference in focus between for-profits and traditional schools. "Traditional colleges will still have trouble with scheduling," he says. "They want students to have the whole 'college experience' and may have requirements that are not necessarily focused on getting a job."
Indeed, as traditional universities move into online learning, they often engage different kinds of students in different ways. USM students are joining a growing number of traditional undergraduates who are taking courses online while living on campus. While these students enjoy the same benefits of online learning as the older, working student, they also face unique challenges, according to a 2010 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In particular, younger students living away from home for the first time may struggle to balance the independence of online learning with the distractions of college life.
In the end, traditional universities and for-profits offering online classes may still be serving two different groups of students, even as they move toward sharing an educational medium.
How students attend class is less important than program quality
The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is another industry group watching the online degree landscape. Martin Snyder, Director of External Relations for the AAUP, says the association has no official position regarding online education. "People tend to assume the AAUP is hostile to online education, but we are not," Snyder said. "The medium is not the issue. Creative faculty can take any medium and make it work."
Instead, Snyder said the AAUP has concerns with collateral issues that may crop up such as the exclusive use of part-time faculty. "The worst nightmare is a fully online program without anyone having a full-time commitment except administrators," he said. According to Snyder -- who also teaches online for the University of Maryland -- dynamic and effective programs need to have faculty that are involved in both the creation and delivery of curriculum.
Recently, the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School -- ranked sixth in the nation by the Wall Street Journal -- announced the launch of its online MBA program. In a CNBC report Dean Jim Dean was quoted as saying, "Frankly, this is something the world has never seen before." As schools continue to expand their online degrees programs, the world may have to get used to seeing more of the same.