The Growing Competition for Students: Online Schools Storm the Ivory Tower

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Synopsis

Students today are looking for ways to sidestep the high costs and inconvenience of attending a brick and mortar schools. Estelle Shumann discusses factors to bear in mind as students seek meaningful education on the Internet.

More and more jobs today require a college degree, which means that students are pursuing higher education more aggressively now than ever before. At the same time, though, tuition costs and overall expenses have never been higher. When forced to decide between diminished job possibilities and decades of debt, many students are looking for a cheaper way by turning to the online space. Internet-based education has been around for some time, but has seen an unprecedented surge in enrollment in recent years. Online colleges promise “more for less” by offering competitive degrees on a flexible, from-home schedule, often at a fraction of the price. Some academics wonder if the bar hasn’t been lowered too far, however. While many online institutions offer a quality education, not all do. The inadvertent result may mean a workforce that is technically more educated, but nevertheless lacks true knowledge—which could be very problematic. On the flip side, a more open educational landscape may be worth the payoff for the schools that are actually able to provide top-notch learning.

 College enrollments are generally up across the board, but the online sector has seen the most dramatic shift when it comes to new students. “Online enrollments increased 10% last year contrasted with the less than 1% growth of the overall higher education student population,” Utah’s KSL radio program reported in May 2012. “Students’ busy lives require a thoughtful and skilled juggling act as they attempt to balance work, family and business travel,” the program said.  “The online degree seems like the perfect solution for career advancement without having to give up a good job with its secure income.”

 In most cases, the students who are enrolling in online courses are not the same as those who would be applying for traditional four-year undergraduate programs. While some students do look to the Internet for schooling just out of high school, most, as the KSL story implied, come from a more established professional background. The sector seeing the biggest hit from the online shift is the community college and technical school arena. These sorts of programs are often seeing something of a decline in admissions as more and more prospective students turn to the Internet.

 One of the biggest concerns educators have is that the online space, while certainly convenient, may not be effective for every student. “Studies have shown that student success—in particular, retention rates—in many online courses is significantly lower than in similar traditional face-to-face courses,” a 2008 report in the Virginia Community College publication Inquiry said. The online format makes it easy for students to essentially “fall off the grid,” the report said, and encouraged a resurgence of online training and active mentorship to encourage students to get the most out of the material presented.

 Even students who are successful—that is, who complete the courses with good grades and come away with substantial knowledge of the subject area—may not be receiving quite the same education as their classroom-based peers when it comes to socialization, which is concerning to some. A college degree “is an educational experience rather than a training course,” the Financial Times said in a 2012 survey of online learning. “Accessing and digesting content is only one aspect of the programme. Reflecting, communicating, engaging and collaborating with a network of academics and peers are equally important.”

 There are many cases in which free or low-cost education makes sense, and few legitimately argue that online education should be regulated or clamped down. The benefits of making knowledge and instruction widely available overwhelmingly outweigh the negatives. Still, students would be wise to carefully investigate any online program before enrolling, and to make sure than any course of study—whether Internet or classroom based—has the potential to help the student advance his or her career and networking goals.

Tags: distance learning, education, online education, technology

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