The Babson Survey Research Group, in conjunction with Pearson and the Sloan Consortium, has been gathering data and reporting on distance learning in the United States for the past 11 years. According to its latest report, Grade Change: Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2013, 7.1 million, or 33.5 percent, of higher education students took at least one online course in 2012. The study also shows that 74 percent of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes in online education as the same or superior to those of face-to-face instruction.
What is Online Learning?
Online education delivers instruction to students who are not physically present in a traditional classroom setting, using telecommunication technologies, such as the Internet and video conferencing. The goal of most online learning providers is to create user-friendly online classroom environments that make learning interactive and enjoyable. Students do need to be familiar with using a computer and the Internet, but they certainly don't need to be computer experts.
Learning communities are created virtually with students and faculty communicating via email, bulletin boards, forums and chat rooms. Course materials take the form of video lectures, narrated slide shows, visual demonstrations, animation and even web field trips. Assignments are submitted electronically and testing is done online, although sometimes students take tests at a proctored location.
Why Learn Online?
Online learning offers students convenience and accessibility. In most instances, there's no need to attend class at a specific time. Students can go online when it best suits their schedules. This is particularly beneficial to parents and students who work while attending school. Online learning is accessible to all, anywhere in the world. There is no need to travel to a campus. Students who live far from a school that offers a program they want, can still enroll without needing to move to a new location. Students who need to travel for business don't worry about missing class when they're in a different city.
Online schools and degree programs offer students the same types of guidance and academic resources as traditional schools offer. Academic advisors, tutoring, assistance with technology, access to an alumni network and online student clubs are available. Some programs even provide opportunities for internships and practicums through which students may acquire real-world experience. This is particularly important when it comes to degree programs, such as teaching, which require classroom experience for certification.
Distance Learning Modes
Students interested in online learning can choose from three basic modes:
Synchronous online learning requires all students to be online at a specific time for a live class with an instructor. Instead of going to a classroom, however, students log in from home at the predetermined time. While the least flexible of the online learning modes, synchronous learning comes the closest to recreating the traditional classroom experience.
Asynchronous online learning is the most flexible of the options. It allows students to access class lectures and materials at any time and complete them at their convenience. Students who are already familiar with some of the material can move ahead without having to wait for their classmates to catch up. This enables some students to earn their degrees more quickly than if they had to go to campus every week. Students who need extra time, however, can re-watch lectures and learn the material at their own pace.
Hybrid or blended learning programs offer some of the content online and some in a traditional classroom setting. This approach will require students to live or work close to the school and is best for courses that require some sort of hands-on practical learning. Alternatively, some courses require students to be on campus for a specific time period that can range from one weekend to several weeks. The percentage of classroom versus online learning time varies, depending on the subject matter and the school. The online portion of hybrid programs can be delivered in a synchronous, asynchronous or mixed format.
Where to Find Online Learning
Every type of traditional institution of higher learning today, from Ivy League colleges to large state universities to small private schools, offers some sort of online learning program. According to the Babson Grade Change Report, 66 percent of chief academic leaders say online learning is critical to their institution's long-term strategy. This means there is focus on and investment in taking online programs to new levels. So much so that traditional schools are standing by the quality of their programs and are awarding the exact same diplomas to online students as they do their classroom counterparts.
Students can also choose to earn a degree from any one of a variety of for-profit online colleges. These are the schools which first blazed the trail of online learning and tend to have the broadest offerings of degrees, certificates and courses. While traditional colleges have stepped up their online offerings, for-profit online colleges have broadened their student support efforts to mimic those of traditional schools. They aim to offer high quality education along with as much of the traditional collegiate experience as possible.
Online Program Accreditation
Traditional colleges and universities -- public and private not-for-profit -- seek accreditation from one of six regional agencies active in the United States. Recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, these privately run bodies visit and vet institutions for quality curricula, faculty and a host of other criterion. Many of these colleges include their online programs in their accreditation application, signifying that they possess the same academic rigor as their campus-based counterparts. Therefore, distance learning opportunities at traditional schools often carry regional accreditation. In addition, the institutions may seek accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), a national agency dedicated solely to online learning.
For-profit online schools tend to have a slightly different accreditation profile. Many earn accreditation from national agencies only, which specialize in examining and approving "non-traditional" institutions and programs. The most applicable being the aforementioned DETC. However, for a school's degree programs to receive DETC accreditation, the online school must be accredited for Title IV purposes, meaning the institution and its students qualify for federal funding. Furthermore, specific programs can also be accredited by specialized agencies, such as the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International) and the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE).