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The growth of online learning: How universities must adjust to the new norm

Student in classroom

January 11, 2017

The ubiquity of technology has transformed education, making online learning part of the “new norm.” Over the past three years, online enrollments in higher education have continued to grow although overall enrollments in the United States have continued to decline. From 2002 to 2014, the number of students enrolling in “at least one distance education course” increased from 1.6 to 5.8 million students according to WCET Distance Education Enrollment 2016. Online enrollments are being driven by the growing number of students who are seeking flexible formats for courses, certificates, and degree programs to support career placement, advancement, and transition as well as to pursue advanced studies. Increasingly, students enrolled in on-campus programs are also registering for hybrid to fully online courses throughout their enrollment.

Nontraditional is the new “traditional” in higher education in the United States.

For over a decade, national reports have brought increasing attention to the impending shift from traditional to nontraditional student enrollments. In 2006, the Commission on the Future of Higher Education released Hidden in Plain Sight reporting that the “stereotype of the traditional 18-22 year-old full-time undergraduate student residing on campus” represented approximately 16% of the higher education population in the United States. In 2012, the New American Foundation released Cracking the Credit Hour reporting that only 14% of all undergraduates attend full time and live on campus making the “collegiate archetype – a well prepared 18 year old…. – the exception, not the rule.”

Online learning has become an integral part of the educational landscape. K-12 students grow up immersed in technology with an increasing percentage of high school graduates already familiar with online learning. In 2013-14, 75% of all school districts across America offered online or blended courses and 30 states had statewide fully-online schools (Connections Academy, 2015).

Today’s reality – online learning is here to stay. It is not a fad or a trend. However, online learning is also not a panacea since it may not be ideal for all content areas or ideal for all learners. Online learning provides institutions of higher education (IHE) with an opportunity to expand educational access to students who may be unable to come to campus on a regular schedule or at all due to employment, dependents (children, parents), disability, transportation, etc. Online learning also bridges K-12 and higher education, providing high school students with opportunities to enroll in Advanced Placement (AP), honors, and college preparation courses.

Just as it “takes a village to raise a child”, it takes a campus to retain a student.

Growing enrollments should not be the primary driver for online learning. IHEs need to consider student retention and completion among several key drivers. Online course offerings, ranging from hybrid to fully online, can be critical to student retention; particularly for students who do not want to stop out or drop out due a professional or personal shift in schedule related to employment, unemployment, deployment, health, family, extended travel, etc. Research indicates that when students stop out, it can put them at greater risk of non-completion (National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2015 Inside HigherEd, 2013). Online learning and student retention require an institutional commitment, including innovative approaches to program and course formats, student engagement, and support services.

Guidance and research is essential to online learning and student success. The U.S. Department of Education and accrediting agencies provide definitions and guidelines for Title IV institutions offering online learning. Non-profit organizations, such as WCET, provide extensive resources on current and emerging issues that align with these guidelines. Concurrently, research and advisory groups such as Eduventures, The Learning House, Inc., Academic Impressions, Magna, Online Learning Consortium, and EDUCAUSE provide national reports on online growth and understanding the needs and preferences of today’s diverse learners.

Drexel University, which enrolls more than 7,000 unique online students from all 50 states and more than 30 countries, is taking a collaborative and student-centered approach to online learning. Faculty from different disciplines across the university are working together through research with the Office of the Provost and CONQUER Collaborative to examine cognitive and non-cognitive factors related to learning and retention with online and blended enrollments. This research, collected across undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree programs, will provide new insight through data and neuroimaging. Additionally, research on how virtual reality can augment and expand the educational experience for online and blended learners will provide insight into active learning and learning transfer. As education and technology continue to evolve, the next frontier may be at our finger tips or our virtual reality controls.