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Online learning is at an all-time high. There are more degree programs and classes to choose from – and more people than ever taking them. According to a recent survey of online learning by the Sloan Consortium, about 32% of higher education students now take at least one course online — the highest percentage yet. Nearly 70% of higher education institutions also said that online education was critical to their long-term strategy, compared with less than one-half 10 years prior.
The future wasn’t always so bright. A decade ago, diploma mills were rampant, promising a degree of little substance or one for purchase. At one time, it was estimated that U.S.-based diploma mills awarded as many as 200,000 credentials a year. Students who went through certain online programs weren’t getting their money’s worth, or weren’t graduating at all. A 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office found that for-profit schools had lower graduation rates for bachelor’s degree programs than their counterparts at nonprofit and public schools.
Startling statistics and practices like these ultimately damaged the reputation of online schools, resulting in a stigma that still persists today. But that is changing. Consumers – the students themselves – who are demanding a higher quality education, faculty members who are improving student outcomes, and instructional designers who are working to improve the online environment and experience are helping to create online programs that are changing the face of distance education – for good.
“Enough people have gone through that experience and said, That didn’t work for me, I didn’t learn what I needed to, I didn’t have the connection I wanted with my instructors. And we’ve learned from that,” says Bob Lee, senior product marketing manager of learning solutions for Citrix Online, a creator of online collaborative tools. “We’re starting to take more care and thought in instruction of what a future online program should do and how it should work.”
Here are some ways that online education is very different from 15, 10, even five years ago.
Finding High Quality
It’s easier than ever to find the most reputable, high-quality online programs, it’s just a matter of knowing where to look and what to look for.
“You should only buy a car from a reputable dealer, and a home from a reputable realtor. Education is no different,” says Dr. Scott Dalrymple, dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Excelsior College, an online, distance learning institution. “There are bad actors out there, but it’s actually easier than ever before to identify them.”
Dalrymple recommends that students look for regional accreditation, “the gold standard in most cases,” as well as certain national accreditation in some fields. The U.S. Department of Education provides a searchable database where you can find out if a school is accredited by a federally recognized accrediting agency. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation has also been vigilant in reining in unauthorized colleges and degrees and educates the public on accreditation and degree mills.
College rankings are another standard go-to when looking for high-quality institutions of higher education, but for the most of the history of online education, there hasn’t been anything comparable. For the past two years, however, U.S. News & World Report has published evaluations of online universities. The programs aren’t ranked like the brick-and-mortar schools, but judged based on student engagement, faculty credentials and training, and student services and technology. Another resource on online education is Quality Matters, a self-described “faculty-centered, peer review process that is designed to certify the quality of online and blended courses.” Schools can subscribe to the program to supplement their quality assurance efforts and make sure they’re using the best practices for online education. Since developed by MarylandOnline in 2003, today, there are more than 675 current subscribers, ranging from community and technical colleges to four-year colleges and universities.
The biggest indicator of quality for an online program is whether or not students receive the same education that they would in the classroom. And more than ever before, that is the case. A 2012 report from the Sloan Consortium on online education found that a majority (77%) of academic leaders rated the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those in face-to-face programs — up from 5.72% of academic leaders in 2003. It’s a refrain oft repeated by online educators — it’s the same education, just delivered differently.
One of the places where your degree counts the most is in the workforce, and employers’ opinions of online degrees are improving. According to a 2009 study from the Society for Human Resource Management that asked more than 550 human resources professionals about the credibility of online degrees, about 90% surveyed agreed that online university degrees are viewed more favorably today than they were five years ago. Nearly half also agreed that online university degree programs are as credible to traditional university degree programs.
“Soon, asking about employer attitudes toward online education will make about as much sense as asking, ‘How do employers feel about people riding around in those newfangled automobiles?’ says Dalrymple. “We’re not quite there, but we’re close.”
With more and more workforce training happening online, experience with online learning is increasingly seen as an advantage, too.
“To have skills in 2013, you really need to learn how to learn online,” says Kenneth Vehrkens, dean of Fairleigh Dickenson University’s Petrocelli College of Continuing Studies. “It’s good for everybody, whether you’re a traditional or online learner.”
Better User Experience
When Rocco Fiorentino was an online student more than six years ago, he was in one of the first classes to graduate from The American College’s new online master’s in leadership program. He still uses the skills he gained through his degree every day, but if he took that same program today, the experience would be significantly different.
“Back in 2007, what I was doing was state-of-the-art,” says Fiorentino. “Today, the technology has allowed the program to be much more user-friendly than when we were doing it.”
In just a few short years, the face of online education has improved drastically. Where once upon a time students communicated mostly via message boards or chat, today’s online students can see their fellow students and teacher. Where materials were once mostly print, today, they incorporate both visuals and audio.
“There’s so much more richness in terms of the actual presence on the web,” says Dee Masiello, assistant dean of Academic and Faculty Affairs of Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies. “It’s not static.”
Indeed, students can follow along with a teacher during a whiteboard presentation, conduct role-playing and scenario-based learning, and view their fellow students and teachers face-to-face. That visual connection is a key difference in today’s online experience, says Lee.
“I can watch your body language, see the expression on your face, and connect with you more personally and engage with you better as an instructor,” says Lee.
Face-to-face, interactive learning is a critical component of a top-tier education, says Susan Cates, president and associate dean of executive development for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School and executive director of MBA@UNC.
“We use live class sessions with very small groups to go through negotiation exercises, have students present to each other, engage in case discussions, compete in simulations – the same things they would do if they were face to face in the same physical space,” says Cates.
This increased level of engagement makes the difference between an online program being just flexible and convenient but also enriching. Beyond connecting on your typical online message board, students can have faster, synchronous interactions through technology like voice boards and video that allow for more social, collaborative interactions.
The rise of social media also allows for a more engaged online learning experience. According to a recent report on social media use from Pew Internet, 83% of Internet users aged 18 to 29 use social sites. This has naturally found its way into the online classroom, with schools incorporating sites like Facebook and Twitter into the learning process. At Ivy Bridge College, an online transfer college, classes have active Facebook pages where students can ask questions, find weekly study tips, and find blogs from students and staff members.
“Students learn better when they are working together, and online groups and forums provide opportunities to connect with each other,” says Paul Freedman, founder and CEO of Altius Education, a technology company that co-founded Ivy Bridge.
Improving the online student experience isn’t just about face-to-face contact or high-tech learning platforms. It’s also important to make sure students leave knowing what they’re supposed to know and earn a high-quality degree. In the beginning, online programs weren’t so great at that, says Masiello. But today, technology and assessment are more closely aligned.
“Online has created more opportunity for the use of technology, more opportunity for access, more opportunity for choice and flexibility, but it’s all about making sure the outcomes of the students coming out of that experience are quality outcomes,” says Masiello. “Institutions are working very hard to figure out how to make sure our product maintains quality regardless of what platform the customers are taking it in.”
Some ways schools are doing this are by collecting data that informs learning and institutional decision-making and tracks student competencies in areas like communication skills and critical thinking.
The allure of online learning has always been its flexibility, and today’s online programs are more flexible than ever before. An “online student” could mean someone who takes a fully online course, takes the majority of classes online but only some on campus, or takes a majority of classes on campus and only some online. Brick-and-mortar schools are increasingly catering to both, providing degree programs in both online and on-campus formats.
Students are turning to online education to help them fulfill a variety of goals, too. They might earn an associate degree online and then transfer to a four-year university to earn their bachelor’s. Many online schools facilitate this practice, thanks to partnerships with four-year institutions. Other students may turn to online learning to help finish a degree they were earning on-campus, helping improve degree completion rates.
Today, not only can online programs be customized to the student’s learning preferences, they can be customized to the student’s own degree goals. Altius Education is currently developing an online learning environment called Helix that aims to make the online experience more personalized by using the students’ own interests and goals to provide a context for learning that is relevant and engaging.
“We all have a story, and when we enter the classroom that story doesn’t stop. Cognitive science has taught us that our brains are wired to learn best through these stories,” says Freedman. “Acting on this research, the Helix environment creates a narrative framework that improves retention of information and engagement. Our students can choose stories like, ‘working towards a new job’ or ‘being your own boss,’ and the course content will adapt to what they are most interested in.”
Online education has made significant gains in just the past few years, and it’s only continuing to evolve. Here are a few things that are likely on the horizon for online students:
- Gamification: Ninety-seven percent of kids ages 12-17 play video games, according to a 2008 Pew Internet report. While mostly a hobby, soon, you’ll likely see similar technology employed in higher education. Gamification, or the application of game elements and digital game design techniques to non-game problems, is expected to become more embedded in daily life, including education, by 2020, according to another Pew Internet report. Potential areas include test prep or college completion. “I think gaming is where we’ll see the most significant change in the next couple of years,” says Masiello.
- Rise of Open Educational Resources: Open educational resources, or OER, take on many forms, but are essentially free learning materials, such as textbooks, course materials, and lectures, that provide a more accessible, engaging way to learn new materials and study a topic. One of the most popular forms of OER are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), made popular through platforms like Khan Academy, Coursera, and Udemy and championed by major universities like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT. MOOCs are still pretty nascent in higher education – according to a recent Sloan Consortium survey, only 2.6% of higher education institutions currently have a MOOC, and another 9.4% report MOOCs are in the planning stages – but there’s big buzz. “Many online courses are integrating OER and that’s a good thing,” says Dalrymple.
- Increase in use of adaptive learning technology: Down the line, online learning may be using more adaptive learning technology, or personalized learning. This technology can allow students to customize their learning based on their understanding of the material. “If you clearly understand the parts of a cell, for instance, then your online biology course can allow you to quickly prove that competency and move on to other topics,” says Dalrymple. It can also let a professor leave basic concepts to an intelligent online engine and spend more time on more advanced knowledge.
- Less emphasis on the learning management system: Your typical learning management system may be a thing of the past, making way for a more collaborative platform. “I don’t think the learning management system is going to go away, but I do think things are going to become looser and more flexible,” says Lee. He envisions an online learning environment where current students are connected with other students, guest lecturers, and past students that allows for more social, team-based learning.
- Going mobile: It’s not unheard of to be able to access your course materials on your phone in an online class today, but there’s still room for improvement. “[Students] want all their course materials accessible via their mobile device and they want to take their classes via their device. The technology needs to catch up,” says Ryan M. Emery, Director of Instructional Design for The American College of Financial Services. Areas that Emery sees as lacking include virtual classrooms that are accessible but don’t have all the features available, e-learning development tools that can produce HTML5 but still require a connection, and limited tools that produce interactive off-line downloadable modules.
Making the Most of Your Online Degree
The content may be delivered differently, but succeeding in an online program isn’t all that much different from succeeding in a campus-based program.
“Students need to do the same things they would do for a traditional in-person course,” says Emery. “Read your syllabus, read your instructions, pay attention in class, do your homework and participate. If you are engaged in the learning, you will be successful.”
At the same time, when you are considering an online program, it is important to understand the design of the program and how it operates, since not every online environment is the same.
“Students should focus on how they will learn, how the program supports student interaction and relationship building, and what support and engagement with the school they will have from a distance,” says Cates. “They should take advantage of the experience and capitalize on the versatility while also taking advantage of the resources available for building relationships with faculty, classmates, alumni and industry.”
The inherent advantage of online learning may also make it a bit more challenging for some students. Because students have greater flexibility and freedom over their schedule, that can also mean greater responsibility.
“A faculty member is not necessarily standing in front of you,” says Masiello. “When someone isn’t standing in front of you holding you accountable, it can be difficult.”
Differences aside, Masiello believes that as online learning becomes more popular and the learning outcomes identical across delivery systems, this common distinction between an online student and a traditional student will soon be irrelevant, that people will stop seeing a difference between online and traditional degrees. In that case, one of the greatest changes to online education may in fact be the name itself. An online degree, in essence, would simply just be a degree.